Project Attain seeks to close the education gap in adult learners in Sacramento region

Melanie Dixon (far right), is the executive director of Project Attain, a nonprofit that helps adults navigate and achieve their higher education goals. Pictured here, Dixon speaks with her “navigators” during a staff meeting. (Photo by Nick Shockey)

By Hannah Ross

Mia Lopez graduates next week. The communications analyst for the Sacramento Area Council of Governments will be graduating with a Bachelor of Science in communications from the University of Phoenix this spring, completing her higher education journey at age 35.

“Everything came together at exactly the right time for me, even though it was about 10 years after when young adults normally go through that process,” Lopez said. “I can hardly believe that I’m here and I really feel like Project Attain was just what I needed to help get me over that hump.”

Project Attain, a nonprofit that helps adults navigate and achieve higher education, offers a handful of programs for people like Mia — residents of the eight-county Sacramento region with some or no college education looking to get back to their educational goals.

“School is like another language when you start talking about credits and availability of transfer,” Lopez said, adding that she moved to Sacramento from Stockton after finishing trade school as a pharmacy technician. 

She struggled to find jobs in the field, and when the pandemic began, Lopez considered going back to school. She was disheartened and confused when her counselor at Sacramento City College told her it would be two to three years of part-time classes before she could transfer to a university. Then she found Project Attain’s Comebacker Program, which offers one-on-one counseling to help returning students with things like making sense of credits, accessing old transcripts and making choices about where they will get their degree. 

“I felt like for the first time I didn’t need to be embarrassed for where I was in my educational journey. … For the first time, there’s clarity around how to pick a school. It was not a skill that I had, or knew how to approach and [Project Attain] helped bridge that gap for me,” Lopez said. 

‘The Great Divide’

Melanie Dixon, a former president of American River College, became Project Attain’s executive director in August 2023. (Photo by Nick Shockey)

Founded in 2018, Project Attain wants to increase working-age adults’ education attainment by 60% by 2030, according to Melanie Dixon, executive director for the nonprofit. Last year’s data showed 33%-38% attainment across the eight-county region. The organization operates out of the Sacramento City College campus, and hopes to serve about 1,000 people annually. To date, about 300 students have participated. To qualify, a person must be 25 years of age or older, live within Sacramento’s eight-county region and have attended college at some point in their life with an interest in returning. There is no additional cost to students who participate in Project Attain.

“We know what the economic standing of members of our communities are. The great divide is continuing to expand instead of close,” Dixon said, referring to the wealth gap between high and low-income households. “And we have employers out here that have promising wage or high-wage-earning jobs. We have adult learners that are struggling, some in poverty …  and we have this opportunity with industry to close that gap with these individuals.”

According to Statistical Atlas, Sacramento residents with bachelor’s degrees see annual median earnings of $51,600, versus $33,100 for those with some college education and $27,400 for those with a high school diploma. That’s a 55.8% increase in earnings for adults who finish their bachelor’s degree. 

But Project Attain is not focused solely on encouraging the program’s participants to earn their four-year degree. They also support the pursuit of certificate and Career Education apprenticeship programs. At Sacramento City College, for example, students can earn certification in cosmetology, bookkeeping, and aircraft maintenance, among over 30 other programs.

Project Attain is a member of Sacramento’s K-16 program — a regional collaborative of higher education institutions, including UC Davis, Sacramento State, Los RiosCommunity College District, and County Offices of Education school districts, industry groups and community organizations across an eight-county region. As part of this collaborative, Project Attain works to develop specific pathways through education to direct career placement, leveraging grant dollars to build prototypes that can be applied across the region.

They do this work in direct partnership with local institutions where they have an office on campus to support comebackers in pursuit of their goals, like at Sacramento City College. 

Vice President of Instruction Devoun Stewart believes this boots-on-the-ground approach to educational attainment is a unique model and an opportunity for SCC to intentionally support adult learners by developing clear pathways for them through later-in-life higher education.

“We have some certificates and degrees at our colleges that for students who complete them, they are getting a salary and income, in some cases $100,000. … We have programs where students are being hired before they graduate,” Stewart said. “We really believe that this is the work we need to do to end, in some cases, generational poverty because once you have that credential in hand and start making that money, that’s going to be life-changing for your family, your community, and the larger economy overall.”

Regional Collaboration 

Attain advisers act as navigators for adult learners, pictured here with Executive Director Melanie Dixon (center). (Photo by Nick Shockey)

Dixon, also a former president of American River College, is Project Attain’s first official hire. Since taking the helm in August 2023, she has directed much of her energy to conduct strategic outreach in populations disproportionately impacted by lack of educational attainment like Latino, Black, Native American and refugee populations. 

Dixon sees the path through higher education as offering many robust challenges beyond just navigating enrollment, and said she hopes to build strong relationships with organizations addressing poverty, housing insecurity, and internship and apprenticeship gaps in the workforce.

“It’s really about regional collaboration. [We want to] utilize the resources we do have with some integrity and some fiduciary responsibility,” Dixon said, “Identifying and securing and honing in on the partnerships that support our work in the region, and then figuring out how we band ourselves together to do the good work of the region.” 

Project Attain currently partners with Valley Vision on policy and workforce attainment, California Competes for research around adult learners, academic probation, and re-establishing access back into institutions, and Inside Track, a national organization with regional roots for developing effective outreach strategies. 

Starting from a community-enhancement approach, Project Attain looks to build their education pathways that place adult learners on the path to fill talent gaps they have identified from key regional employers like SMUD, Kaiser Permanente, Accenture and Sutter Health.

“In terms of supporting our students, especially for [the] most marginalized student groups, I think it’s in our region and our economy’s best interests to be establishing clear and effective pipelines into some of these high-demand areas,” Stewart said, pointing to certificate programs and degrees SCC offers in STEM, computer science, aviation and health care fields.

Dixon stressed that improving pathways for adult learners means ensuring a better future for the community at large. 

“We want our residents to stay here, work here, play here, right? We want this to be the most wonderful region, and the way that you do that is [through] intentionality of how education feeds the market of the region and allows people that quality of life from the earning potential,” Dixon said. “Everybody wins.”

This story is part of the Solving Sacramento journalism collaborative. Solving Sacramento is supported by funding from the James Irvine Foundation and the James B. McClatchy Foundation. Our partners include California Groundbreakers, Capital Public Radio, Outword, Russian America Media, Sacramento Business Journal, Sacramento News & Review, Sacramento Observer and Univision 19. 

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1 Comment on "Project Attain seeks to close the education gap in adult learners in Sacramento region"

  1. Fantastic program! Congrats to grads!

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