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An estimated 10 million people are living in America illegally right now – almost the same number that tuned in last month to hear LeBron James announce on an ESPN special that he was leaving Cleveland to play for the Miami Heat. Also last month, Lady Gaga surpassed the 10-million fan mark on Facebook.

And a new report from the Southern Regional Education Board (SREB) shows that 10.4 million adults aged 18-64 in its 16 member states didn’t have a high school diploma or GED in 2008. Of these adults, 3.3 million didn’t complete ninth grade – a number roughly equivalent to the entire populations of Alaska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Vermont and Wyoming combined.

While much of the national conversation centers on college readiness and completion for current high school students, SREB’s report, A Smart Move in Tough Times: How SREB States Can Strengthen Adult Learning and the Work Force, argues for focusing as well on those already out of the traditional k-12 system as a means of lowering healthcare costs and unemployment rates, while increasing tax revenues.

“We need people in our states to be better educated,” said Alan Richard, director of communications for SREB. “We can’t do that if we ignore these 10 million people.”

The report, released today, looks at what progress – if any – the 16 states have made since the group released in 2005 a similar paper, Investing Wisely in Adult Learning is Key to State Prosperity, which indicated that the least-educated adults in the region were typically unemployed or in dead-end jobs.

A student in an adult-learning program. (Photo by Christopher Connell)

While highlighting some good news from specific states, the main findings of the report paint a “sobering” picture, said Joan Lord, vice president for educational policies at SREB.

Enrollment in many adult learning programs in different states actually fell between 2005 and 2008. In all, only 4.6 percent of the 10 million adults without a high school diploma or GED were enrolled in one of these programs in 2008.

In 2008, just 1.5 percent of the adults who didn’t have high school diplomas earned GEDs. “That’s just not enough,” Lord said.

Forty percent of the adults in SREB’s 16 states who took the GED exam in 2008 didn’t pass. And only four percent of the few hundred thousand adults who participated in adult learning programs in 2007 indicated a desire to pursue a postsecondary education, a figure the report calls “astonishingly small.”

The findings in the report come at a time when adult learning centers everywhere are oversubscribed in a tough economy, said Lennox McLendon, executive director of the National Adult Education Professional Development Consortium, which is based in Washington, D.C.

Lennox McLendon

“What we need to do is increase access – we have waiting lists for adult education programs in every state except South Dakota,” McLendon said. “The number of months on the waiting list has just doubled.”

Adults without much education find themselves with diminished job opportunities, and many are clamoring for help, he said.

To serve as many of them as possible, the SREB report encourages states to establish specific goals about improvements they wish to see, as well as to “improve coordination and governance among agencies that provide education services.” It also recommends investing more in adult learning, or – at the very least – making smarter decisions about the funds already going into these programs.

“The return on investment in adult education is pretty high and it comes back pretty fast,” Lord said.

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Sarah Butrymowicz oversees and contributes to The Hechinger Report’s investigative and data work covering all levels of education, from early childhood to K-12 to higher education. She has worked at...

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