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Widening the Focus on Adult Education

Back to Skills

The economic climate has been particularly painful for adults with limited academic backgrounds, leading to a renewed push to expand resources and offer support for individuals lacking a high school or postsecondary certificate. This week on Capitol Hill, the National Coalition for Literacy (NCL)—a non-profit group that advocates for increased education for at-risk or vulnerable adult groups—held a conference highlighting state-level progress in the adult education space while also urging the federal government to increase its financial support.

U.S. Census data from 2010 shows 14.4 percent of adults 25 and over have not earned a high school degree or its equivalent. About 93 million adults read at a basic level or worse, though only a fraction of that population is receiving education services: In 2008-2009, just 2.4 million adults were enrolled in a federally funded adult education program.

According to the NCL, state governments spend about $1.5 billion on adult education in regular economic times, but the recession and its aftereffects have curtailed those expenditures. In Los Angeles alone, for example, city lawmakers are considering cutting all $120 million from the adult learning program associated with the public school district. NCL calculates the federal government spends roughly $600 million on adult education, mostly through Workforce Investment Act funds.

Rita Daniels, executive director of Literacy Volunteers and Advocates in Washington, D.C., a group that combats adult illiteracy in the nation’s capital, said the average reading level of an adult entering LVA’s program is equivalent to that of a student in the second grade. Daniels says LVA has been successful at boosting literacy levels and expanding job opportunities: Of the 108 individuals receiving 12 hours of small group training, 99 met personal literacy goals such as reading to grandchildren or managing personal bank accounts.

In Minnesota, an initiative called FastTRAC integrates basic skills with career and technical education to move individuals from low literacy levels to a postsecondary credential. Aiming for more than just connecting low-skilled workers with jobs, the program is designed to connect participants with family-sustaining wages. To date, 88 percent of participants in FastTRAC’s credit-bearing postsecondary courses have completed their initial courses.

Dr. Barry Shaffer, the director of Adult Basic Education within the Minnesota state government, explained the program’s success can be attributed to its design: Many public and private sector pipelines contribute  to the education of the adults in FastTRAC. Partners include the state’s department of education, workforce development agency, department of labor, and the state college system, among others. The venture was funded through a $2 million budget, with partial backing from the Joyce Foundation.

Providing education to adults lacking basic accreditation is relatively successful and inexpensive: A federal audit determined adult education students earning high school equivalency degrees increased by 26 percent from 2001 to 2007, costing the government about $3,000 per pupil; other job training programs can cost federal coffers four to thirty times more. Between those years, adults whose goal was to earn a GED achieved high school equivalency accreditation about 50 percent of the time.

And on the economic front, a boost in adult education might help close the employment gaps that seem likely to widen as more hiring managers focus on potential employees’ credentials. A Center on Education and the Workforce report calculated that while in 1983 over half of the service industry jobs required a high school degree or less, by 2018 that figure will drop to single digits.

NCL proposes increasing federal funding, creating an independent National Center for Adult Education, and continuing the integration of literacy and job placement programs.