Cuts to Adult Education Would Harm More Than Just Students

Jul 14, 2011

By Marcie Foster

For nearly 90 million low-skilled adults in the U.S., the chance at a better life rests on their access to education that can help them upgrade their skills, earn a high school diploma or GED, prepare for college and get a better job. One of the largest sources of educational funds available for these students is adult education funding provided through the Workforce Investment Act.  Adult education is a significant and invaluable asset to our nation’s recovery and future prosperity, yet pressure to make deep cuts to discretionary spending—including education programs—could threaten their very existence. 

Programs to help low-skilled students upgrade their skills are historically underfunded and continue to fall victim to budget cuts. In recent years, these programs have been kept alive because of generous state and local funding. But as state and local budgets decline, little funding remains for education to low-skilled adults and youth who need to upgrade their skills to compete for jobs.

These cuts are shortsighted and could undermine the nation’s growth. The benefits of adult education greatly outweigh its cost. Adults with a high school education are more likely to be employed and less likely to live in poverty and need public assistance, such as food stamps, Medicaid, and housing subsidies. They are also more likely to have better health. A 65-year-old with a high school diploma typically enjoys better health than a 45-year-old who dropped out in the tenth grade.

Examples of state and major local cuts:

  • Ninety-one percent of adult education funding in California previously came from state sources. But a 2009 ruling that relaxed rules on how school boards can allocate funding to programs in their region has caused state funding to drastically decline. Since then, school districts across the state have re-routed adult education funds to K-12 and other education programs or eliminated adult education entirely. In the first year after these new rules took effect, adult education enrollment declined by 36 percent statewide. Oakland once housed the state’s first adult school; in 2011, the city will offer very few adult education or ESL classes and will likely have to pursue teacher layoffs. In San Jose, cuts may cause enrollment to be slashed by 70 percent and teachers to be laid off.
  • Oklahoma has cut all of its funding for adult education—over $2.3 million—threatening the provision of services to over 17,500 students.  Eliminating all state funding poses an even greater threat since it weakens the state’s ability to meet the matching funds requirement for federal adult education funds under the Workforce Investment Act, a critical source of education funds for adults with low basic skills. 

Some states have taken an alternative approach to balancing state budgets by charging fees to adult education students instead of cutting services. But these fees can often place a severe hardship on lower-skilled students, who are more likely to be unemployed and low-income than their higher-educated peers.

  • Florida, which once provided free adult education courses for all eligible students, just passed a new ruling that would require programs to charge students up to $360 in annual fees. Some educators in Florida claim that these new fees will pose serious challenges for at least half of students, many of whom are new immigrants or live below the poverty level.

As the imperative to build a higher skilled workforce grows, the value of adult education will only increase.  Instead, as demand for adult education services grows, capacity to provide services is shrinking. Each year, only two percent of the potentially eligible adult population—2.2 million out of 90 million—will receive the education they need to get a job, a GED, or prepare for a transition to college. In 2010, over 160,000 adult students were on waiting lists, sometimes for over a year.

As pressure to drastically cut spending intensifies, Congress should take great care to preserve precious funding for adult education. It’s a smart investment and a program that we can’t afford to lose. 


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