Adult Education Falls Short

**The Edvocate is pleased to publish guest posts as way to fuel important conversations surrounding P-20 education in America. The opinions contained within guest posts are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official opinion of The Edvocate or Dr. Matthew Lynch.**

A guest post by Barbara Mader

Adult basic education is one of the best investments this country could make in its future, but this isn’t happening. Employers claim we need a better educated work force to compete internationally. One of the most effective improvements we could make to national productivity is a better educated work force. But more than 30 million adults in the US do not have a high school diploma (1).

We have fallen far behind the rest of the world in educating our children, and millions of them leave the free public education available to them each year with no goals or future plans. Spaces in adult education programs are increasingly filled by motivated individuals from around the world who are seeking a better life in the US. Instead of helping drop outs catch up, gain employability skills, and fill job vacancies, adult education programs are helping immigrants improve their English language skills, and gain job skills.

Twenty percent of high school graduates have only beginning literacy skills, which roughly parallel early first grade literacy skills. Adults with beginning functional literacy skills cannot read basic signs or maps, or fill out simple forms. They have few or no computational skills (2). They have little or no recognition of the alphabet and often connect little meaningful relationship between sound and symbol for decoding (reading) or encoding (spelling).

Beginning adult basic literacy skills roughly parallel second grade up through some skills expected of fifth graders. These skills include reading simple directions, signs, and maps with some difficulty, filling out simple forms, and mastering basic arithmetic computation. Individuals with basic literacy skills should be able to:

  • read and print letters,
  • write one, two, and some three syllable words,
  • perform basic alphabetization,
  • read safety warning signs,
  • write their name, address and phone number,
  • write basic messages with simple and some compound sentences,
  • and correctly use basic punctuation.

Beginning adult basic literacy skills is the level at which many adult education programs begin. These classes are referred to as ABE (Adult Basic Education) classes. Often, formal programs (frequently associated with community colleges and other educational institutions) contain several levels of instruction through which students pass as they gain skills. They then take the GED or other high school equivalency exam when they achieve the skills to pass the exam.

Public education fails

Clearly, the nation’s education system is failing to produce workers who can compete internationally at a basic level of job skill competency. A 2013 assessment of adult skills among 24 countries in the world placed US adults 16th in literacy and 21st in numeracy. While other surveys and assessments may have slightly different rankings, US adults are not coming out near the top on any list.

It’s not that public education is short spending on the school age population. The national average expenditure per pupil per year in public education is about $10,000. By contrast, the average spent per adult in an education program is about $800. Two million adults are served annually in a variety of programs through school districts, community colleges, faith based groups, workplaces, unions, housing developments, literacy volunteer programs, prisons, and other settings. Some programs (often those associated with academia) receive a majority of funds through state and federal grants. These programs tend to attract about two-thirds of their instructors from the pool of certified teachers or certified adult literacy instructors.  While paid, most instructors (except administrative personnel) are part time employees. Staffing of other programs may be largely volunteer and those non-credentialed in teaching pedagogy.

Regardless of credentials of the instructors, all 50 states have waiting lists for program enrollment, and public funding cannot come close to meeting the needs of adults seeking a GED or high school equivalency diploma.

Earning potential without a high school education is bleak. Three million students drop out of public school annually. In most states, the legal drop out age is 16, although this number is changing to 17 or 18 over the next year or two in some states. The three million drop outs join the population of 6.7 million young adults between ages 16-24 who are not employed or in any education program. Their earning potential is about $10,000 a year less than high school diploma or equivalency holders.

The earning potential for workers with some college increases by thousands of dollars, and a college graduates earns at least $17,000 more annually than a high school graduate (1). But the way to a college degree is paved through completion of a high school program or equivalency.

Who are adult learners?

Adult learners are a mixed variety of people.  Some are immigrants who may have a high school diploma or college degree from their native country but need the US equivalent for employment. Many of these people are English language learners who need both education skills and English classes. Some estimates place 20% of the US working population as immigrants by 2030. An increase in availability of English language learner classes is obvious.  Many ELL classes are available through adult education programs.

The working poor and unemployed comprise about two-thirds of the learners in adult education programs. The remaining third are people not in the labor force. Students include drop outs (now stay home parents) wanting to serve as role models and help their children with school work, non-working spouses, drop out teens living at home with no clear life goals, or older adults who never finished school. Included in the adult learner population are people who may have undiagnosed learning or emotional challenges trying to gain skills for a better life quality. Some are people seeking social connections, and some have an area of interest such as photography or art history.

African American students make up about 39% of adult learners (3). White students make up about another third. The remainder comes from Asian, Hispanic/Latino, and other non-white ethnic backgrounds.

The states with the most adult students are California, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and New York. The District of Columbia, North Carolina, Utah, Arkansas, and Oklahoma have the highest percentages of students compared with total state population, while South Dakota, Nevada, Colorado, North Dakota, and Massachusetts had the lowest percentage per state population. The states with the largest 5 year increase in adult education enrollment are Vermont, Utah, Rhode Island, Washington, and Puerto Rico (not a state but statistics are included). The states with the largest 5 year decrease in adult enrollment are Delaware, South Dakota, Florida, Tennessee, and New York.

Students enrolling in adult education classes come from a wide variety of ethnic backgrounds, maturity levels, motivational bases, learning abilities, basic skill levels, life circumstances, and other challenges. While most programs are open to almost any student who walks through the door, statistics citing students served vary by state and federal criteria. These statistics drive much future grant funding for many programs. State mandates often are more rigorous than federal mandates. Some federal grant programs consider a student served who had met 12 hours of contact time with a formal program. These hours may include orientation programs and placement testing hours. Little or no instruction time may be part of the 12 hours. Service to the student is justified by exposure to information about available services and classes which may be accessed at a future time.

Other program challenges include major economic shifts, such as a recession. Many programs saw an increase in enrollment after the recent recession when jobs lost drove the unemployed to seek new or higher level job skills.

Overall, adult education programs benefit the population as a whole. They increase employability of adults, keeping many above the poverty level. They can reduce prison recidivism by up to 29% according to studies (1). They correlate to fewer chronic health problems, raise the tax base by billions, and provide adults with improved decision making skills. Education drives people further toward self-actualization. They encourage voting and civic responsibility. They promote education competency among children whose mothers complete a high school equivalency or GED program. They promote self-esteem and confidence.  They help people positively influence on their community, government, and the nation as a whole.

Changes that will benefit the national adult basic education system as a whole include:

  • Better high school retention programs
  • An increase of available adult education classes
  • Increased training for potential instructors, many of whom are not trained teachers
  • More funding to meet student needs
  • Streamlining the process for obtaining program funding
  • Better evaluation criteria for appropriate class placement
  • Coordination with community human services programs
  • Better pay and employment opportunities for certified instructors


All these improvements could be made at modest cost. Clearly ABE is an investment our country should make now.




Barbara Mader is a retired teacher certified in special education, speech therapy, and as a Wilson Language Instructor. She taught special needs students in three states for over thirty years. She now tutors, blogs, edits, writes in eight categories for, and is developing a line of all natural non-chemical skin care products. As a hopeful novelist seeking an agent for her first romance adventure she wove together her love of gardening, ancient history, a little magic, and fairies. You can follow her online journalism work at and her somewhat irreverent blog at

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