Backpacks to Briefcases College Transition Program

Program Context

Davidson County Community College, in Lexington, NC serves over 3,300 adults in its Basic Skills program on two campuses and eight satellite sites in the community. The workforce in Davidson County has historically been a manufacturing economy. Since 2003, however, these jobs have steadily moved off-shore and the unemployment rate in the county has been around 12% or higher. Many citizens, both younger and older, have returned to college to retool skills to enhance their job opportunities. Many have returned to obtain a high school diploma because no one is hiring those who don’t at least have a high school credential. All students who are in both credit and non-credit programs at the college have access to the college’s library, fitness facilities, career center and student support services. This is a big draw, according to program staff.

The program operates three transition programs: GET REAL (Real Education Achievement for Life), Achieving College or Career Entry (ACE), and Backpacks to Briefcases. This profile focuses on Backpacks to Briefcases.

Rationale and Background of the Practice

Backpacks to Briefcases (BB) is the program’s response to learning through a survey of 65 that students that most students didn’t know about the various certificate program options at the college or how to access available support services. They asked GED and adult HS diploma students what they knew about various aspects of college, such as applying for college and financial aid. They were “amazed” to learn that the overwhelming majority of students did not know very much at all about college.

Description of the Practice

Backpacks to Briefcases is designed to serve 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. It is focused on career planning and college knowledge, integrated with GED or high school diploma preparation.

Backpacks to Briefcases takes place over three weeks and has three components:

  • 3-day intake & orientation,
  • 3-day college success program, and
  • 3-days or more of skills application.

During intake & orientation, students are screened for their motivation to pursue postsecondary education or training, and pre-tested using a college placement test. During each of the three days of orientation, students are introduced to five certificate programs offered by the college. Each one is featured as a part of the orientation: Automotive Technology, Medical Assistant, Pharmacy Technology, Heating and Air Conditioning, and Early Childhood Education.

The College Success component divides into Career Planning and College 101.

Career Planning consists of:

The career feasibility exercise entails having students relate their career interests and aptitudes from the Holland Codes self-assessment results to the college’s career programs.

One common barrier with the 18-24 age group is that even though these young adults are typically independent from their parents, financial aid requires them to obtain their parents’ financial information, such as income tax statements. There are some students–for example, those who were foster children–who cannot obtain this information. The BB coordinator works with students to resolve these kinds of issues.

College 101 covers:

  • college knowledge assessment,
  • college terminology,
  • test-taking and study skills exercises,
  • admissions,
  • financial aid, and
  • communication and perception management.

Communication and perception management cover “soft skills,” such as appropriate dress and use of language in interviews for college, jobs, or scholarships. Students are alerted to the fact that employers often check prospective employees’ online presence, and students should be careful about what they post on their Facebook pages. This is important because Facebook is an important form of communication for many young adults. This is how the program helps students hone communication skills that are appropriate for different audiences through role plays and discussion.

The last three days focus on skills application. Students are guided to set short- and long-term goals based on what they have learned about themselves, their career aspirations, and available college programs. During this time, they complete their admissions and financial aid applications and search and apply for scholarships. They go on a tour of the college, where they meet with deans and program directors and visit important places to know on campus, and visit other two-and four-year colleges. The program concludes when students complete an exit evaluation.

The program builds students’ career readiness through contextualized curricula developed for the five featured career pathways. As students get close to finishing the secondary credential, the BB coordinator asks the GED and HS diploma program instructors to incorporate career specific content with instruction. The BB coordinator communicates which students are planning to pursue which certificate programs. The instructors then use the appropriate curricula with those students, either one-on-one or in small groups, depending on how many students are choosing the same career pathway. The contextualized curricula teaches reading, writing, vocabulary, and math using content and skills relevant to a given certificate program. It is available free of charge upon request.

Upon entering the program, students receive a backpack. Upon completing and enrolling in college, they receive a nylon briefcase, a leather portfolio with notepad, a pen, a water bottle, and a stress reliever (a squeezable rubber brain).

This is a student-centered program where students are invited to provide suggestions and feedback and to network with each other. Student feedback caused the program to add a unit on study skills. Students came up with the program logo and name, Backpacks to Briefcases. They are also active participants on the class Facebook pages, where they can request help and network with each other and the staff.


The program is feasible to implement as part of a GED or adult diploma program with a modest amount of additional funding. It could be easily replicated with older adults as well. They may need more instruction in computer skills than young adults.

For Backpacks for Briefcases, the program employs part-time coordinators (8-10 hours a week for about 15 students) at three sites. The program looks for flexibility and strong communication skills when hiring coordinators. Flexibility is required to help each student find the right fit, address barriers, and gain the awareness, confidence and skills they need to succeed in college. Strong communication skills come into play while building and maintaining relationships with people in charge of admissions, financial aid, student services, testing, and advising. The BB coordinator keeps the lines of communication open about each individual student.

The average annual budget of Backpacks to Briefcases is $22,000, most of which goes to pay the part-time coordinators. The program was initially funded through a two-year, federal demonstration project, called Ready for College. When that funding ended in September 2010, the college took over funding the program.

The program uses the contextualized curricula it developed for the five certificate programs offered by the college as part of another project (Breaking Through) and is willing to share them upon request.  Upfront staff time and expertise would be required to develop similar curricula for career tracks for which there are no existing transition curricula.

The program also enjoys strong support from the college president–support that it cultivates by inviting her to visit the program and by keeping her informed of its successes.  When other college departments know college transition programs are a priority for the president, they are apt to be more responsive and supportive.

Much like with the college president, the program sponsors visits by the local Workforce Investment Board members to cultivate their awareness, understanding, and support. This Board oversees the state’s career centers, called Job Links. The program has also secured support for students through a strong collaboration with the local Job Link. The WIA Title I eligible students receive financial support that they can use for college expenses like transportation, books and fees. They also work with an employability counselor at the Career Center/Job Link that administers the WIA Title I funding and services. Most of the students who are eligible avail themselves of these services.

Advantages and Outcomes

This is a highly structured program that accelerates college and career readiness. The program makes clever use of actual backpacks and briefcases to symbolize the transition to postsecondary education. Their self-developed contextualized curricula connect students more quickly to the college’s certificate programs. This is reflected in the outcomes: 76 students participated in 2008 of whom 76% (58 students) completed the program of whom 78% (45 students) enrolled in postsecondary education or training. In Fall of 2009, 42 students participated in BB and 81% (34 students) transitioned to college. Almost all of them (about 95%) are first generation college students, and qualify for Pell Grants and Title I WIA.

The program has increased students’ motivation and self-efficacy to pursue postsecondary education. As the program director puts it, “It has opened some doors that they may not have been able to open themselves.”

Patricia Phillips, Associate Dean for Basic Skills
Davidson County Community College
Lexington, NC