About 30 million Americans have “below basic” prose literacy skills. That’s according to the National Assessment of Adult Literacy from the National Center for Education Statistics. People in this category might struggle to read the Harry Potter series in English, let alone get advanced job training. Meanwhile, some Wisconsin employers say they can’t fill job openings because applicants lack the necessary abilities.
Seeking to help adult learners improve their verbal and quantitative skills are pre-college education programs. Dean Gloria Pitchford-Nicholas heads the School of Pre-college Education at the Milwaukee Area Technical College. Amanda Ritchey of Mount Mary College directs College in the Community. It partners with Milwaukee Achiever Literacy Services and Journey House to offer literacy instruction.
Nationwide, 50 percent of students applying to college require remedial and skill development courses. And the enrollment figures at MATC and Mount Mary College mirror those numbers.
"Part of the mission of the School of Pre-College at MATC is to make sure that we enable students to step forward with their lives wherever they're starting." -Dean Gloria Pitchford-Nicholas
Pitchford-Nicholas says about half the students who apply to MATC lack the scores to transition into its college program and require development remedial help, or have not completed their secondary diplomas.
"We're talking about students who potentially are not reading or have math scores at the level that they can actually start with their GED prep," she says. "We find that when we are defining literacy, we define it as levels."
Likewise, Ritchey says half of the students who come to Mount Mary are often just beginning to explore college options and need help developing reading, writing and math skills to get to that level. The other half include older students who have been in the workforce and have these skills, but are coming back for a college degree.
Moreover, many students needing pre-college help speak English as a second language.
"They may be skilled and talented in certain areas in their own language, but they need remedial help in English skills," Ritchey says.
Both women say their programs attract a diverse set of students, but Pitchford-Nicholas says students of color have an additional challenge to overcome: feeling like college is really a possibility for their future.
"The completion rate for people of color is lower when we look at four year institutions, or two year institutions," she says. "So I think some of the barriers and challenges that we tend to see with different ethnic groups is directly linked to, first of all, being perhaps the first person in their family to ever consider going to college and if that's something that potentially they feel comfortable."
She says one of MATC's critical priorities then is "to make sure that people truly understand that they have the ability to make that transition into college.
"Part of the mission of the School of Pre-College at MATC is to make sure that we enable students to step forward with their lives wherever they're starting."
Another major obstacle is for many students is poverty, which Pitchford-Nicholas says is greatly linked with low literacy rates. She says because of the loss of many industries in the Milwaukee area and the scarcity of good-paying jobs, people often have needed to decide between going to school to develop skills or getting immediate employment. In a "spiraling effect with poverty," they can often only get low-skill jobs because of their low literacy rates - which are usually also low-paying positions.
Ritchey says that cycle, in which low literacy rates play a big part, contributes to the growing skills gap in Milwaukee. Both she and Pitchford-Nicholas see these pre-college programs as a means by which students can gain the skills that employers are looking for - and that could help more people get better paying jobs.
"What programs can we implement so that we can help students that are in the pipeline, students that do have literacy challenges to see that an engineer or to see that some of the sustainability in terms of green jobs, is an area that they can ultimately have a pathway to?" Pitchford-Nicholas says. "But I think it becomes really critical that we carve out the pathways for students."
MATC's Regional Industrial Skills Education, or RISE, initiative is developing bridge programs that connect academics with occupations. She says this is particularly effective for students with low literacy levels, in providing them with hands-on skills learning and even the ability to earn certificates, so they walk away from the program with entry level skills.
Using those skills, she says students will have better employment opportunities while continuing to work for their degrees.