Increase Adult Ed Funding to Meet Need, Drive Economic Recovery

By Molly Bashay

Adult Education and Family Literacy (AEFL) week, which is September 19-25, recognizes the importance of investing in adult education services for workers, families, and our economy. This year’s celebration coincides with Congressional mark-ups of newly proposed and sorely needed federal investments in adult education within the Build Back Better Act. Adult education and family literacy programs are crucial, and often overlooked, components of the public workforce system. This programming serves adults who need to enhance their foundational reading and math skills, improve their oral and written English, obtain a high school equivalence certificate, and prepare for postsecondary education or training.

Adult education creates opportunities for worker-learners, and many will struggle economically without it. Over 40 million U.S. adults have limited foundational math and reading skills, a hurdle that precludes many from accessing quality employment that offer the wages, benefits, and flexibility necessary to live well. More than 25 million Americans over the age of 25—or one out of every nine—don’t have a high school diploma. And despite the ubiquity of remote work, click-and-collect groceries, and countless other digital applications essential to daily life, nearly 50 million U.S. workers have no or little digital fluency.

Since the pandemic, and even before, adults with limited math, reading, and spoken English skills are at serious disadvantage in a labor market that has yet to fully recover. Research from the Bureau of Labor Statistics shows that job growth is about zero or even negative for individuals without a high school diploma or some college experience. By 2024, 48 percent of job openings will require skills training or an associate degree, and 32 percent will require a bachelor’s degree or more. This means that in less than three years, nearly 80 percent of all job openings will require more than a high school diploma.

Worker-learners who participate in adult education programs can explore career pathways and hone their skills, allowing them to advance their careers through postsecondary education or training. In other words, the experience and competencies gained in adult education programming drive economic mobility for families and economic recovery for the nation.

Thankfully, the Biden-Harris Administration’s Build Back Better Act currently making its way through Congress proposes an investment of $3.6 billion in the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act or AEFLA, which disburses the majority of federal funding for adult education and services to states. This federal investment will only begin to chip away at the unmet need in adult education programming; currently, less than 10 percent of adults who need services receive them. While it’s essential to meet this need, we have much more work ahead to increase investment and advocacy on behalf of worker-learners and their families.