Effective Adult Education Programs: A Challenge for States

Blog post Meagan Crowe SREB Policy Analyst

SREB’s Unprepared and Unaware: Upskilling the Workforce for a Decade of Uncertainty warns that states will face dire consequences if they do not act quickly to prepare adults for workforce changes. As automation and artificial intelligence raise the skill levels necessary to fulfill job duties, competition increases among adults seeking positions that pay a livable wage. Computers will perform more workplace tasks, and adults who don’t adapt to new activities may be stuck in jobs that pay too little — or lose their jobs altogether.

Adults can turn to adult education programs to improve their skills, but enrollments have fallen in recent years. Adults with lower skill sets often have fewer financial resources, and less time, to devote to such programs. Education programs can help adults persist to completion by providing financial assistance, flexible scheduling, childcare and instruction that covers both basic and technical skills, including literacy.

Literacy Levels

Adults with higher literacy levels are more likely to participate in education programs than those with low levels — who arguably need these programs more. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development found that adult literacy proficiency accounts for 25 to 30 percent of the difference in participation rates, a difference that exists even when controlling for factors such as age, gender, educational attainment and employment status.

Perceived Needs

Regional labor market demands, available job types, and unemployment rates can make education programs more (or less) attractive to adult learners. For example, if there is a high demand for middle-skilled workers, and available jobs require technical skills for entry, job hunters may be more likely to participate in adult education programs that will teach them those skills.

Measurement Matters

According to OECD, the way adult education programs measure effectiveness is directly tied to funding strategies, which can impact enrollment rates. When access to programs is non-selective, learning outcomes will generally be lower than in programs that only admit adults with higher skill levels. When funders expect only higher-quality performance outcomes, programs can become more selective, mainly admitting applicants who already have high skill levels and are likely to perform well. A mix of measures including both quantity (how many people participate) and quality (proficiency increases) helps programs receive credit for enrolling low-skilled adults as well as for good learning outcomes.

A Challenge for States

States face an uphill battle in meeting the needs of adult learners, especially at a time when technology is advancing rapidly. Limited state resources make it difficult to offer programs that are accessible, responsive and appealing to a diverse group of people with different hurdles to overcome.

  • States will have to put forth extra effort to reach adults with lower literacy levels while giving them the technical skills needed to get a good-paying job.
  • Programs should be aligned with local labor demands and signal this alignment to local technical college systems, prospective participants and potential employers.
  • Incorporating quantitative and qualitative measures into program assessments will help increase access to adult programs while accurately measuring learning gains.

Adult education resources from SREB >

Workforce trends and resources >