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Opinion

Bridge Programs Get Big Results, But Little Support


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(Photo: Office of the Governor - Kevin P. Coughlin)


Governor Cuomo’s $175 million workforce development proposal, announced earlier this year, promises major new investments in the skills-building programs that New York needs. With industries like healthcare, tech, and construction facing shortages of skilled workers, the governor’s plan can help expand access to opportunity while boosting the economy.

But for millions of New Yorkers who lack math and literacy skills—including 2 million adults without a high school diploma and 2.3 million who speak English less than very well—gaining entry to effective workforce programs will first require boosting their basic skills. That is the idea behind bridge programs, which help adults with limited formal education acquire the skills they need to transition into training and higher education.

Given the enormous population of New Yorkers with these needs, expanding bridge programs should be part of any statewide workforce development proposal. Ideally, these programs can teach adult basic education in the context of an industry, while building momentum toward a marketable credential. However, fewer than a dozen programs in New York City and just a handful upstate put the full bridge model into practice.

It’s time to change this. New York State should make investing in bridge programs part of its workforce development plan.

Where the model has been implemented, the results are impressive. Bridge programs work for people with limited opportunities and no time to waste. Research has found that bridge programs are effective for students with significant barriers to employment, including those with a reading level as low as the 7th grade.

New York’s leading example is the Bridge to College and Careers program at LaGuardia Community College. Through coursework that focuses on healthcare, science, or business, the program provides meaningful context for the math and literacy skills students need to pass their high school equivalency exams.

LaGuardia’s bridge program has connected with especially vulnerable demographics: About half of its bridge students are 26 or older, almost half are immigrants, and over 50 percent read at a 7th or 8th grade level. Many of these students are balancing commitments that make going back to school particularly difficult, such as multiple part-time jobs and children at home.

A 2013 study by MDRC showed that students in LaGuardia’s bridge program were twice as likely as their peers to pass the high school equivalency exam and three times as likely to pursue a postsecondary degree. The program has proven so effective that other states are using it as a model, notably a new bridge program at Northeast Wisconsin College. But even as Wisconsin imports LaGuardia’s pioneering program, none of New York State’s 35 other community colleges have been funded to offer bridge programs of their own.

Aside from the program at LaGuardia Community College, most of New York City’s bridge programs are run by nonprofit job training and adult education providers. One notable example is Per Scholas, a respected Bronx-based training organization, which partnered with The Door to create a five-week TechBridge program where participants catch up on basic math and English skills before transitioning to Per Scholas’ IT Support job training course.

The landscape of bridge programs is even more limited upstate. One bright spot is CenterState CEO, a business development organization in Syracuse, which integrates math and literacy education into a green construction training program. Likewise, the New York Association for Continuing and Community Education offers adult basic education that bridges into a certified nurse’s assistant training program. Other initiatives organized by community colleges, nonprofits, and intermediaries only use elements of the bridge model—like combining adult literacy programs with pre-college preparation—and are hampered by limited resources and a lack of coordination with industry partners.

Multiplying the capacity of bridge programs will require state leadership. Governor Cuomo and the state Legislature should fund pilot projects at community colleges statewide modeled on LaGuardia’s successful initiative, provide resources to scale up proven programs run by nonprofit providers, and invest in the capacity of business development intermediaries to bring stakeholders together to create bridge programs.

The new state Office of Workforce Development can also organize partnerships among schools, nonprofits, and employers to shape bridge programs that work for the needs of specific regions. As bridge initiatives grow, New York should prioritize programs that implement the full model—offering adult education in an industry context, bridging into a program that offers a postsecondary or industry-recognized credential, and incorporating a credential into the bridge program itself.  

New York’s bridge programs serve nowhere near the number of adults who would benefit from them. It’s time for New York to catch up. Building support for the bridge model into the state’s bold new workforce investment plan can help ensure that a shot at economic mobility is accessible to all.

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Naomi Sharp is a research associate at the Center for an Urban Future, a New York–based think tank focused on expanding economic opportunity. On Twitter @nycfuture.

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