Career Pathways: What Participants Say about Challenges, Supports, and Motives for Succeeding



Two nurses looking in a text book togetherWith millions of adults lacking the education and training needed to get good-paying jobs that provide adequate benefits and offer opportunities for advancement, many states and localities are implementing new job training programs to increase adult skills and meet the workforce demands of employers.

Some programs are focusing on career pathways approaches designed to provide clearly defined education and training steps that lead to credentials for in-demand jobs.

Career pathways programs include some combination of assessment, innovative instructional approaches, academic and non-academic supports, and connections to employment. Yet little is known about the effectiveness of such approaches, particularly how successful they are at helping low-income adults—many of whom have low skills—obtain jobs that provide economic security.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF) funded the Pathways to Advancing Careers and Education (PACE) evaluation to learn more about the effects of nine promising career pathways interventions that target adults who are primarily low-income and low-skilled. The evaluation will assess the impact of these interventions on educational attainment, employment and earnings.

PACE will also describe how each intervention was implemented. As part of the implementation study, the evaluation team conducted two rounds of in-depth interviews with a sub-sample of participants in each of the nine programs to better understand what motivates individuals to apply for these programs, their perceived challenges in completing programs, and the types of supports they use from PACE programs and others to persist in their studies.

These briefs summarize findings from the first round of interviews, which occurred after participants were enrolled in their programs for about six months.

The research team conducted qualitative, in-person interviews with a sub-sample of treatment and control group participants in all nine career pathways programsThree briefs based on analysis of the first round of in-depth interviews, conducted with PACE study participants approximately six months after entering the PACE study, were released in May 2016. Each can be found on NCSL’s website and can also be accessed on both Career Pathways website and U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Administration for Children and Families (ACF) website.

While not representative of all PACE participants, or individuals in other occupational training programs, the findings can be helpful in understanding why individuals enroll in programs, obstacles they report facing, and what helps them persist. The information can also be used to identify potential policy options to support adult students.


Demographics of Individuals Interviewed


Majority late 20s or early 30s

30% older than 35

13% under 21


40% Hispanic

30% African American

17% White


Nearly 75% female


60% had children


60% high school degree only

20% less than 1 year college

11% Associate’s degree or more


Challenges Facing Low-Income Adult Students

Participants discussed challenges in their personal lives that affected their enrollment in the program,challenges they faced currently while in the program and any anticipated future challenges. They cited four types of challenges: financial, academic, family and time/work balance.


Financial concerns were commonly cited by PACE participants. Some described concerns about their ability to pay bills and cover all their living expenses while also attending school. Some reduced their work hours in order to attend classes, which in turn reduced their income. Many also cited financial concerns as a potential barrier to future training and higher credentials. They were unsure of how to pay for the next step in the pathway.

  • Tight budgets, with very little left after paying bills.
  • Cutting back on work hours in order to go to school.
  • Unsure of how to pay for the next training program.


Participants also noted academic challenges. Some expressed concern about their ability to learn new and difficult material, especially if they hadn’t been in a classroom for a long time. Some recent high school graduates did not feel their prior schooling prepared them for the material covered in the programs. Non-native English speakers cited language barriers as a challenge to learning new and technical occupational terms.

  • Learning new and difficult material.
  • Not feeling prepared by prior education (high school).
  • Language barriers.


While individuals cited examples of family providing strength and support, some noted family issues impeded their progress and could potentially affect program completion.Some were dealing with divorce and domestic violence. Others spoke of child care challenges and finding caregivers while they attended classes. At an emotional level, parents expressed guilt about spending time away from children.Some reported they took online courses to reduce the time they were away from their children; others noted they studied and did homework alongside their children in an effort to spend more time together. 

  • Difficult family situations including divorce, domestic violence, caring for other family members.
  • Arranging child care while attending classes.
  • Time away from their children. 

Time and Work Balance

Individuals cited lack of time as a challenge to persisting in their studies. Some indicated there was not enough time to juggle their many obligations (work, school, family). Others referenced difficulty finding time to attend classes and complete homework. Still others reflected on the longer term, such as whether they could find the time to complete the program successfully and achieve their goals.

  • Difficulties finding time to devote to all obligations (work, school, family).
  • Time required to be in class and complete assignments.
  • Long-term time commitment to complete the program.

Supports Provided to Students

Participants noted that supports provided by the program and from others, including family members, helped them persist in their programs. Examples of program support they cited included financial assistance to pay for tuition and related costs, case management and advising. Participants in all programs noted that they received help paying tuition through program-specific grants and scholarships or assistance applying for financial aid such as Pell grants

Individuals also reported receiving support from outside the program from relatives and others, including housing (living with parents or other family or friends), child care, emotional support, and public assistance. The majority of participants stated they received public assistance, most commonly Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) or Medicaid benefits. 

Student Motivations to Succeed

Participants described why they enrolled in the program, how they defined success, and their perceived ability to achieve their goals. As a motivation to enroll, individuals cited a desire for a career rather than a “dead-end” job. Some were currently working in low-paying jobs without benefits. Others indicated their jobs did not provide opportunities for advancement. They hoped additional training and a credential would provide a pathway out of the low-wage labor market. 

Others mentioned how their children motivated them to enroll in training. Specifically, a betterpaying job would help them provide more support for their children. Others also hoped to demonstrate to their children the importance of education and wanted to be a positive role model. Still others saw the program as an opportunity to transform their lives and start over.

Most participants defined success as completing the program (29%) or getting a job in their chosen field (26%). Others wanted to get good grades (18%) or to be able to fully understand and retain the material that they learn (13%). Nearly all believed they would be successful. Most described themselves as people who follow through on their goals. Some mentioned various factors that could interfere with their success (breakdown of a car, family demands, etc.) but many felt that because they had overcome other barriers in the past, they would also succeed in navigating any future barriers. 

Strategies to Address Student Needs 

This brief summarizes challenges cited by participants to completing their programs, the supports they received from programs and others, and motivations to succeed. The interviews suggest potential areas of additional intervention to address the challenges individuals face in pursuing education and training while balancing the responsibilities of work, family and parenting.

Some questions for policymakers to consider include:

  • How can we address financial challenges beyond tuition and financial aid as well provide more intensive coaching and guidance on financial aid?
  • What can be done to provide additional tutoring or other academic supports, especially for those students who have been away from the classroom for many years and those with language barriers?
  • How can schools and training programs address child care needs of students? Can care be provided onsite? Can a student be eligible for a state subsidy to offset the cost?