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adult education and community colleges
Bronx Community College (Photo by Ryan Brenizer)

In the past, an adult who lacked basic skills in English, writing or math would simply sign up for some courses at the local high school. But, increasingly, adults who need help find themselves on community-college campuses. And many college leaders hope this will place them on the pathway to a certificate or degree.

A shift in how adult basic education is offered comes as employers are demanding a more highly educated workforce and sending prospective workers back to school. At the same time, some states are experimenting with ways to make it easier for adults to obtain a postsecondary education.

Community colleges are well-known for offering remedial education, especially in reading and math for high school graduates whose skills aren’t up to par. But many now also educate adults without high school diplomas who want to sign up for courses to earn their the GED (General Educational Development) credential.

A shifting mission

The effort to turn adult basic education classes over to community colleges is nascent but growing. Most of these classes are still in K-12 systems, but several states, including Virginia and Kentucky, are using community colleges to streamline the process for adults who also want to earn college degrees. Many states are shifting the administration of adult basic education classes to community colleges, asking them to run the programs instead of K-12 systems and community-based organizations.

With the change has come debate over how well community colleges are fulfilling the immediate needs of these diverse students, who may range from teenaged dropouts to adults learning English or brushing up on skills to help their kids with homework.

“Being under the same roof in no way means that everything is aligned and there’s a direct flow to community college classes,” says Silja Kallenbach, director of the Boston-based New England Literacy Resource Center. “The issue is to create a seamless pathway from adult basic education to postsecondary education, and that takes community colleges understanding what adult education is because it looks different in every state.”

In Maine, adult basic education programs are run through school districts. The state also has implemented an agreement between community colleges and adult basic education programs that says both groups will work “to provide a smooth and seamless transition from adult education to enrollment and completion of programming at the Maine Community College campuses.”

Insufficient funding

adult education and community colleges

The U.S. spends about $2 billion a year to run adult basic education programs. Most adult basic education is provided through publicly funded programs or, at times, by businesses. The federal government kicks in about a third of the total cost, so states and local governments must provide the rest. “It’s just not a financial priority for the [federal] government, but it needs to be,” says Lennox McLendon, executive director of the National Council of State Directors of Adult Education.

Current funding covers adult basic education classes for 2.5 million people, but McLendon’s organization estimates that the need is far greater, given the 90 million people in the U.S. who lack basic skills. At least half of those need or want to take a class, and yet there are waiting lists for adult basic education classes in every state except South Dakota.

Shifting adult education programs from K-12 systems to community colleges comes as enrollment in adult learning programs fell between 2005 and 2008, according to a recent report from the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB). Declining enrollment in these programs is likely a result of the recession and the perception among would-be participants that the programs aren’t efficient or convenient enough.

McLendon and other adult education leaders say workforce needs in a weakened economy should prompt adult basic education programs to take adult learners’ needs into account more, and to make college or a certificate the new goal.

“We used to say a GED was all you needed to get a good job to support a family, but that’s not the case anymore,” says McLendon. “Now it’s a GED and some college and a certificate.”

A model program

A study of community and technical college students 25 or older in Washington state who entered the system with a high school diploma or less found that those who complete two semesters of community college and a credential earn, on average, up to $8,500 more per year than peers who complete fewer than 10 credits at community college.

The study also found, however, that many adult basic-skills students earn no college credits at all. A strategy developed in response to this finding was to begin offering courses for basic-skills students that are jointly taught by basic-skills and college-level occupational faculty. Pilots of this Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) program showed that “they substantially increase the rate at which basic-skills students advance to college and reach the tipping point” of completing two semesters of coursework and a credential. The I-BEST model, in providing students with literacy education and workforce skills at the same time, challenges the structure of traditional adult basic education programs that require students to complete all basic education before beginning workforce training.

The goal is to help students progress further and faster toward obtaining a job that pays a reasonable wage. A recent study by the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia University, found that I-BEST students were more likely than other adult basic education students to continue into credit-bearing coursework, earn credits that count toward a college credential, earn occupational certificates and make point-gains on basic-skills tests.

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