Washington Watch: Adult ed’s links to work, income and more

Before the 1980s, a high school education was enough to provide middle class earnings for nearly two-thirds of Americans. Today, more than half of all jobs are viewed as “middle skill,” requiring at least a high school diploma but less than a baccalaureate. With the demand for skilled workers continuing to grow, too many adults lack even a high school diploma.

Numerous studies indicate a strong positive correlation between educational attainment and income.  Increasing educational attainment for adults makes sense. But are adults prepared to go and succeed in college?

A survey conducted in 2013 by the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIACC) concluded that 14 percent of adults – more than 36 million – in the United States have low-literacy skills, defined as reading at or below a third-grade level. Each year, more than 1 million young adults drop out of high school adding to the millions of other Americans who are not prepared for a postsecondary education.

Lower literacy levels are linked to higher rates of unemployment. Although two-thirds of Americans with low literacy skills are employed, they often have low-paying jobs that do not offer family sustaining wages.

“Adult literacy interconnects with virtually every socioeconomic issue,” said Jeff Carter, policy advisor to the National Coalition for Literacy and its former president.

From poverty to parenting, health to self-sufficiency, civic engagement and more, literacy is critical. Forty-three percent of adults with the lowest literacy levels live in poverty. High school dropouts are significantly more likely than college graduates to be incarcerated at some point in their lives, and 70 percent of inmates have low literacy rates. The cost of low adult literacy to the U.S. economy is estimated at more than $200 billion each year in lost wages and tax revenue due to unemployment and lower productivity in the workforce.

What to do about it?

Adult education programs are specifically targeted at this population of adults.

“All adult basic education programming and services have the goal of getting adult students the skills that they need to transition to and succeed in college and career,” said Regina Suitt, vice president for adult basic education for college and career at Pima Community College in Tucson, Arizona.

The Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA), reauthorized by the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, promotes greater alignment of adult education, federal workforce training and postsecondary education. Some adults enroll in the programs to get a high school equivalency certificate or GED, while others need more basic literacy, numeracy, digital problem-solving skills and some civics education.

There is more emphasis now on integrated adult education and training programs, such as I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education Skills and Training), a Washington state program that a growing number of other states have adopted.

“I-BEST is an evidence-based model that integrates basic skills into career and technical pathways, utilizing co-teaching, contextualization and wrap-around services. I-BEST accelerates the time it takes to improve skills necessary for college readiness, while introducing the students to the knowledge and skills they will need in their chosen careers,” said William Durden, policy associate for basic education for adults and I-Best/Pathway development with the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges.

More funding needed

Most federal AEFLA funds go to states as block grants. The states distribute the bulk of the funds through competitive grants to more than 2,500 local adult education providers, including public schools, community colleges, libraries and other community-based organizations.

States provide a 25 percent match to the federal funding and must meet a “maintenance of effort” requirement to spend at least 90 percent of the prior year’s contribution. In addition to the state grants, there is a formula set-aside under the National Leadership Activities that the U.S. Department of Education uses to enhance program quality and outcomes.

Each year, more than 1.5 million adults enroll in these programs, many at their local community colleges. There remains, however, a significant unmet demand for these programs. The PIAAC study estimated that there were more than 3 million adults waiting to access these services and millions more who could benefit from them.

Federal funding for the programs has remained under $600 million annually, except in fiscal years (FY) 2010 and 2018. FY In 2018, Congress increased adult education state grants from $582 million to $617 million. A boost in funding of $25 million in FY 2019 is under consideration now.

A strong case can be made for more investments in adult education as it benefits not only adult students in these programs but their families and our national economy. Adult education is “a hand up, not a hand out,” according to the Coalition on Adult Basic Education.

About the Author

Laurie Quarles
is a legislative resource associate at the American Association of Community Colleges.