A Faster, Easier Way for Adults to Get College Credit

The workplace-focused I-BEST program has emerged as an alternative to the GED test for adults who haven't graduated from high school.
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Drew Coffman/flickr

Leila Yusuf is an immigrant who fled to the United States 19 years ago, during the civil war in Somalia. She’s 37 years old, has three children, and works as a shuttle bus driver in Washington, 20 miles south of Seattle.  She longs for a “better job, better life” where she can make more than the minimum wage. She also wants more opportunities for her children. “I know they will have a better life if I study,” Yusuf says.  She’s enrolled in an innovative program in Washington state that allows students like her to enroll in community college and earn credits right away.

Yusuf’s classmate, Shelley Sherman, dropped out of school when she was 17 years old, when she had a baby. Sherman says when her children were younger she “worked, worked, worked” just to pay bills and put food on the table. “I didn’t want to live on the system,” Sherman says.  She’s been trying off and on for several years to go back to school but her work shifts kept changing and she couldn’t always make it to class. She’s also had health problems. If she had it all over again, she says, “I’d do it all different. I regret dropping out all the time.”

Sherman and Yusuf are two of approximately 30 million adults living in the U.S. without a high school diploma. Typically it would take years for students like them to reach college.  They first have to earn a high school equivalency diploma such as the GED credential, take pre-college courses, and then enroll in college.  This process can take a while and for adults who don’t aren’t fluent in English, the path can be even longer. This often discourages adult learners who already struggle to balance childcare, jobs and schoolwork.

The program I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training) takes those challenges into consideration by shortening the amount of time it takes to earn a credential. Jon Kerr, the Director of Adult Basic Education for Washington, says students enrolled in I-BEST are similar to those in adult education classes across the country. They’ve typically been out of school for a significant amount of time. They often they don’t have a high school diploma or GED coming into the program, they have lower levels of literacy and math skills, and they’re often poor.  “If you [never] finished high school,” Kerr says, “the likelihood that you’ve had a cycle of low-paying jobs is pretty high.”  I-BEST began in Washington about 10 years ago when the community college system realized it had too many students who weren’t ready for college work and too many students were graduating not ready for the workforce.  I-BEST was designed to change that—and so far the results are encouraging.

I-BEST has two deceptively simple components. The program relies heavily on team teaching, so students can get extra support in and out of the classroom.  There’s also a close relationship between schoolwork and the demands of the workplace, so students can see a clear path to their eventual goal. Since 2007, I-BEST has been offered in all 34 community and technical colleges and in three correctional facilities in Washington. Approximately 21,000 students have gone through approximately 190 career tracks, including certified nursing assistant, welding technician, catering, and landscaping. Typically within a year, students can earn a certificate through I-BEST.

Candy Benteu and Rachel Rogers teach Yusuf and Sherman in a child development class at Green River Community College in Kent.   Benteu covers the course content while Rogers teaches basic skills: reading, math, and English. Rogers says that before Benteu covers, for example, the different developmental stages of a toddler, she goes through vocabulary words and checks all the homework. She sometimes pretends to be a student and stops Benteu to ask a question she thinks students might be confused about. “I’m looking for that deer-in-the-headlights look, because they haven’t had a positive experience in school. They’re coming from a place where if they didn’t know the answer, they were humiliated and now they don’t want to seem stupid.”

I-BEST also emphasizes non-cognitive skills, such as sociability, conscientiousness, and perseverance. Nobel laureate James Heckman calls these “soft skills,” critical to a person’s success. “Back in the 19th century,” he says in an interview,  “these non-cognitive skills—it was called “character” at that time—were very strongly encouraged and promoted as part of the curriculum. Now that’s dropped off the map. What hasn’t dropped off the map is the fact that these skills are very useful. We as a country have actually ruled out or ignored a facet of what was an essential part of American education 150 years ago.”

Both Benteu and Rogers talk with their students about workplace behavior, including basics like professional dress (no sweatpants or low-cut blouses, they say), perfume (don’t wear too much), and deodorant.  They role play common work situations for their students. “Keeping your home stuff private and not sharing too much information with people that you work with.  We have big conversations about that,” says Rogers. Benteu says being open and direct helps set clear expectations for students.  “We tell them when you go on a job interview, you don’t tell your boss that you didn’t like your previous boss or talk bad about your past job. No one’s ever bothered to have that conversation with them.”

Benteu and Rogers also have relationships with area child care centers and help students apply for internships there. They take students to child care conferences and teach them how to network. And they help their students get fingerprinted and obtain first aid certificates, which make the students more employable. At the end of this course students will take a Child Development Associate exam and earn a nationally recognized credential.

Leila Yusuf says she’s told many others in her community to sign up for I-BEST classes. She says once she finishes this course she’ll earn $5 more an hour. “I will be helping children and I will have a good job I love,” she says. Sherman says she’s been working for a long time and “people judge you” For not having graduated high school. Now that her children are grown she says she’s trying to make herself “better and happier.” And she says the way to accomplish that is by completing this course and getting a better-paying job.

At Shoreline Community College, 10 miles north of Seattle, C.J. Forza, 31, is a student in an I-BEST Automotive General Service Technician program.  He dropped out of school in the 12th grade after bouncing around between foster homes. He enrolled in this program because he sees a direct connection to what he wants to do once he graduates.

All I-BEST programs are a mix of theory and hands-on learning. Today, Forza sits through a lecture on the physics of manual transmissions and then gets to practice on a row of cars in an attached garage. “I can turn a wrench,” says Forza, “but I don’t know what everything’s called. I don’t know the basic principles of working on a car.” Mark Hankins is the instructor and teaches core content. He says I-BEST programs are not dumbed down or easier than traditional programs.  His students have to understand the same technical knowledge to pass their certifications--how to change brake pads, replace fluids and rotate tires. But, he says, there is a difference compared to traditional programs. “In most college programs you either make it or you don’t. It’s your responsibility to get it, right? I think we’re a little more nurturing. We help them understand why it’s important to be there every day.”

Betsy Binnian is the basic skills instructor who helps teach this class. She shows students how to take notes in class, lines up guest speakers, and organizes field trips and internships.  She focuses on what she calls “employability skills.” “Employers often say things like, ‘Can you just send somebody that can come on time?’” she says. So Binnian stresses to her students the importance of being punctual, calling in when you’re sick, and asking permission if you need to leave early. “Those are really basic things,” she says, “but a lot of it doesn’t gel right away. It’s amazing.”

Forza says he sees his future as “more stable and secure” once he completes this course, because he’ll make more money. He wants to be able to provide for his three-year-old daughter. “I wish I would have gotten into this a lot quicker. I feel if I would have done this earlier, I would have been extremely further along in my career and probably had my own auto shop going. That’s my goal, I want to have my own shop.”

To offer an IBEST program, colleges first have to meet certain labor market criteria to prove there are available jobs in the field. They also have to show that students can earn a living wage when they graduate. In Washington, it’s approximately $13 an hour (in every county except one, where it’s $ 15 an hour). “We want students to leave and be able to get a self-sustaining job,” says Kerr. Independent research found students in I-BEST programs were three times more likely to take college credits and nine times more likely to complete college compared to students in non I-BEST programs.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is one of several funders that have invested in “scaling up” this model to seven states through an initiative called Accelerating Opportunitiy. Several more states, including Maryland and Texas, are implementing versions of I-BEST on their own.

Jay Box, chancellor of the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, says I-BEST has been a success in his state.  Through an Accelerating Opportunities grant, Kentucky began offering I-BEST programs in 2012 and now 16 colleges offer more than 30 programs including welding, industrial maintenance and air-conditioning technology classes. Box calls the state’s two-year results “amazing.” “Of the 750students enrolled in I-BEST classes between January 2012 and August 2013, 61 percent have earned an industry recognized certificate or degree. Compare that to more than 7,000 students enrolled in the same programs but who weren’t in I-BEST classes- only nine percent of the comparison group earned a credential during the same time frame. They weren’t progressing as quickly or successfully as their I-BEST counterparts.” 

Zoe Thompson, director of Workforce Training and Education at the Department of Commerce and Board of Regents in Kansas called it a “system transformation” For delivering adult education and career technical education at the same time.  She says they’ve enrolled more than 2,000 students in two years, offering almost 30 career pathway programs including building construction, machining and HVAC.  She says the students have earned more than 2,500 industry- recognized certificates.  More than 700 students are now employed earning a living wage, says Thompson.   I-BEST programs ask area employers to get involved through advisory committees, internships and guest lectures. Thompson says this pays off. “Employers are involved upfront so we don’t just hope our students will get a job, we know they’re going to get a job. This helps serve our students in a much more deliberate way.”

Another advantage is that through I-BEST, students earn a credential that directly relates to their field of study by bypassing the GED test, which is usually considered a minimum qualification to take college courses if you dropped out of high school. Louisa Erickson, Program Administrator Adult Education in Washington state, says state education officials don’t think the GED test is necessary.  “The students were coming to the college system to get the skills they needed to be able to get the job and career that they wanted. And the GED wasn’t necessarily going to help them do that, but those professional technical programs would.  Getting them right into those courses and being able to earn those certificates-- it just kind of makes sense.”

That opened doors for students, but now there’s an extra hurdle. Since July 2012, because of a Congressional decision, PELL grants are limited only to students with a high school diploma or GED certificate. Erickson says thousands of I-BEST students are struggling because they are no longer eligible. “PELL grants are very, very important. Colleges and the states that are doing the I-BEST program have had to find different ways to fund it and it had definitely impacted the ability to do so and how many students are able to take advantage of I-BEST programs. We really need to have PELL reinstated.”

 Erickson says it’s not just the student who benefits when a dropout goes back to school. “It’s a statewide success when we make sure that our residents are educated, successful and able to contribute financially,” Erickson says.   In Washington, even during the recession, community colleges and the state continued funding I-BEST programs because they were so effective. “Imagine a student who has the courage to say ‘I’d like to get some education and change my life.’ Let’s give it to them,” Erickson says.   “You know? Let’s do what we can to give it to them instead of closing them out.”


This story was produced with support from the Economic Hardship Reporting Project.

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Kavitha Cardoza is a special correspondent for WAMU in Washington, D.C. She hosts the radio-documentary series Breaking Ground With Kavitha Cardoza. 

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