With Budgets Slashed, Adult Education Programs Struggle to Keep the Lights On

Feb 21, 2012

By Marcie Foster

Every year, adult education serves 2 million of our nation's low-skilled adults and helps them get on a path to college or a better job to support their families. And while 2 million students may seem like a lot, the latest data show at least 93 million adults have basic skills deficiencies that could limit their economic and career potential.

Yet funding for these critical services is being slashed at almost every level of government. The value of federal funding for adult education (Title II of the Workforce Investment Act) has declined by 17 percent in the last decade. State funding, a traditionally robust source of funds, is also being targeted as states look for ways to trim spending from their already anemic budgets.

  • A California ruling by the state legislature in 2009 that relaxed rules on how school boards can allocate funding to programs in their region has caused funding to drastically decline. In 2007-8, prior to this ruling, the Adult Ed program had $754 million in state funding and $77 million in federal adult education funding. In 2009-10, under $400 million of state funds was used by local areas for adult education and this amount has been eroding.
  • In 2010, Arizona completely eliminated the $4.5 million in state funds dedicated to adult education, which serves at least 40,000 students annually. Funds for adult education were proposed in the Governor's budget for FY2013 but were not included in an initial draft of the budget proposed by the state legislature for the same period.
  • In 2011, Pennsylvania cut adult education funding by 17 percent, resulting in layoffs of teachers, reduced hours for programs, and some programs shutting down completely.
  • In 2012, Oklahoma cut all of its matching funds for adult education-over $2.3 million-threatening services to over 17,500 students.  
  • Hawaii, Louisiana, Maine, Michigan, North Carolina, and Rhode Island have also proposed cuts to adult education in recent years.
  • Colorado and Iowa have not contributed any state funding to adult education for several years.

Some states are instead funding services 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. After the implementation of these fees, state enrollment in adult education dropped by 38 percent.
  • At least eight additional states allow local programs to charge fees and two additional states (Washington and Oregon) mandate fees. In some cases, tuition or fees can be waived for students with a high level of financial need.

Local areas and school districts are also seeking program cuts or taking steps to institute reforms that could impact program quality.

  • New York City has cut its adult education funding by 62 percent (or $6.2 million) since 2010. Educators in the state estimate that 8,000 residents in New York City will be left with no opportunities for further education or English language services. 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.
  • In late 2011, the Los Angeles Unified School District proposed eliminating funds for adult education-a decision that received national attention and was later postponed in part due to vocal protest from the community.
  • Alexandria City Public Schools in Virginia is proposing to reduce costs by significantly reforming adult education. These reforms include downsizing current staff levels, migrating GED preparation students to online-only courses and sending younger adult students (16 - 22) without a high school diploma back to the traditional high schools. These reforms could be dangerous, as there is little research on how underprepared students fare in courses delivered solely online, without any in-class instruction.

In addition to these cuts and program reforms, a new GED® assessment coming in 2014 may represent another significant financial hurdle that limits student access to a high school diploma or further education. Starting in 2014, states will no longer administer the GED® test and fees (which are now heavily subsidized by non-federal funds) will be set at a minimum of $120. Some states, such as Georgia and Arkansas, are taking proactive steps and warning students about the likely price increase.

As a result of federal, state and local budget cuts, adult education programs across the country are fighting to keep their doors open to low-skilled students desperately seeking these services. In 2009-2010, over 160,000 students sat on waitlists, sometimes for over a year or more. Further cuts will harm the ability of these programs to serve this diverse and disadvantaged population.

The gradual downsizing of the adult education system nationwide is as equally harmful for the nation as it is for students with low basic skills hoping to build a better life for themselves and their families. With the number of high school graduates dropping, the value of adult education will only increase as the nation struggles to meet its competitiveness goals. As pressure to drastically cut spending intensifies, Congress and state legislatures should 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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