Career pathways is gaining steady acceptance as an integrative framework for promising approaches to post-secondary education and training for low-income and low-skill adults. Its central thesis is that instruction should be organized as a series of manageable and well-articulated steps, accompanied by strong supports and connections to employment. The steps provide opportunities for pre-college-level students to access college-level training and for better-skilled students to move to successively higher levels of credential-bearing training and employment. Each step is designed to incorporate customized curricula and instruction, academic and non-academic supports, and employment experiences and opportunities.
This framework is being used both to design discrete programs and to foster more systemic change. Programs—whose evaluation is the focus of this paper—typically concentrate on a subset of steps and embody varying service strategies. Systemic change initiatives entail wider-scale institutional realignments and coordination, seeking to weave together larger webs of program and resources into seamless pathways whose diverse contributing sources are transparent from the student’s perspective.
The career pathways model is relatively new, and its effectiveness—and the effectiveness of most of its components—have not been rigorously evaluated. Effectiveness research often is not the first priority in the early years of an innovation, and career pathways poses special challenges for evaluation design. The underlying model is complex and multifaceted. Thus far it has been articulated loosely for description and promotion but not specified as a tighter framework capable of guiding research.