Backpacks to Briefcases: Taking the Leap to College

October 21st, 2019 | Blogs

For many high school students, taking the step from high school to college is a natural one. But most adult education students face barriers that make the step feel more like a leap: not knowing what program is a good fit, being unaware of critical financial aid or scholarship information, or missing the personal success skills to navigate the admissions process. With guidance and support, all students can make the step from GED and other high school equivalency programs to college without fear of falling.

A survey of 65 students in Lexington, North Carolina showed that most didn’t know about certificate program options at their community college, nor its available support services. While students had the desire to attend college to enhance their job opportunities, few knew how to take the leap.

Backpacks to Briefcases

In response to the survey findings, Lexington’s Davidson County Community College Basic Skills program set forth a new initiative: Backpacks to Briefcases.

Backpacks to Briefcases serves 18-24 year olds who are within 6-8 months of graduating with a GED or adult high school diploma and have a consistently good attendance record and a commitment to improvement. Throughout a three-part, three-week program, students are guided through college and career planning with an emphasis on self-assessment, skill-building, and collaboration.

This structure is designed to build a student’s career readiness through contextualized curriculum, symbolized by two meaningful gifts and the program’s namesake. Upon entering the program, students receive a backpack that they can carry with them through their program journey and college experience. After completing the program and enrolling in college, students receive a briefcase and career care package to take them beyond college and through their careers.

Self-developed, contextualized curriculum connects students more quickly to college certification programs and increased students’ motivation to pursue postsecondary education. In 2008, 76 students participated. Of these, 58 students (76%) completed the program and 45 enrolled in postsecondary education or training. In 2009, 42 students participated. Of these, 34 students (81%) transitioned to college, almost all of whom are first generation college students.

How can this model reach more aspiring college students?

It takes a modest amount of additional funding to implement this program as a part of an existing GED or adult diploma program. Backpacks to Briefcases employs part-time coordinators for about eight to ten hours a week for about 15 students. These coordinators help students find the right track to pursue in college, address individual barriers, and gain the confidence and skills they need to succeed in college and beyond. At Davidson County Community College, this amounts to an average annual budget of $22,000, most of which pays for part time coordinators.

Backpacks to Briefcases uses contextualized curriculum developed for five certification programs as part of Breaking Through and is willing to share them upon request. Similar curricula for new career tracks can be developed with dedicated staff time and expertise.

The program also has strong support from within the college and in the greater community. The program has cultivated a strong relationship with the college president through continuous visits to program and sharing success stories. Backpacks to Briefcases also sponsors visits by local Workforce Investment Board members to inspire understanding and support.

It has opened some doors that they may not have been able to open themselves. -Backpacks to Briefcases program director

With guidance through this critical transition, students are encouraged to look inward to find what they are passionate about and empowered to find the resources they need to pursue it. Learn about other promising practices and NCTN resources at

Written by Sandy Goodman

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