Investing in Adult Education
by Reecie Stagnolia, NWRC Advisory Council​

October 25, 2018

Many solutions to the United States’ workforce, economic and societal issues lie within one of our nation’s greatest untapped resources – adult education. How do we address America’s skills gap? Employers, economic and workforce developers, and educators are all asking this challenging question.

As past chairman of the National Association of State Directors of Adult Education (NASDAE), I may be a little biased, but I believe that many solutions to the United States’ workforce, economic and societal issues lie within one of our nation’s greatest untapped resources – adult education. Everything from health issues to incarceration rates to poverty is impacted by individuals’ educational attainment levels. In fact, there may be no better ‘return on investment’ than that which is made in adult education, particularly when it comes to addressing America’s competitive skills crisis.

According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, “By 2020, 65 percent of all jobs in the economy will require postsecondary education and training beyond high school.” In The Coming Jobs War, author Jim Clifton, chairman of the Gallup Organization, noted that, by 2025, the United States will need 23 million more degree holders than our colleges and universities will have produced. So, where will these degree holders come from?

Because we don’t produce enough high school graduates to meet this demand, non-traditional adult students entering and staying in the educational pipeline are the solution – in other words, high school equivalency (HSE) graduates produced through our adult education system. However, there are nearly 23 million working-age Americans – representing 11.4% of the United States workforce – without this diploma. This is a key public policy issue. Without a high school diploma or its equivalency, these individuals are unable to fully participate in the workforce.

Our nation’s adult education system is working passionately to prepare our students to be college- and career-ready, not just for a job, but a better job and, ultimately a career. We are responding to the growing demand from employers for employees with strong essential (soft) skills, as well as strong foundational academic skills. Adult educators are aware of the urgency for students to move further faster in their attainment of skills and educational credentials, to enable them to meet both their own and employers’ needs in a timely manner.

However, to transform our nation’s workforce, it is essential that employers become engaged as our partners. Engaged employers are those who encourage their prospective and incumbent employees without a high school diploma to persist in obtaining an equivalency diploma by offering incentives, such as tuition assistance and paid release time to participate in education and training programs, and who also offer hope and employment opportunities to unemployed individuals who succeed in pursuing, persisting and passing a high school equivalency (HSE) test. With this support, I strongly believe the educational attainment levels of our nation’s working-age population would soar.

Across the nation, state directors of adult education stand ready to boldly transform our system. However, we need policy levers, employer incentives and engaged partners to help us move the ball down the field faster. The Coalition on Adult Basic Education (COABE) has been a key partner with NASDAE in launching a national awareness campaign – “Educate & Elevate, Adult Education: An Investment in America’s Future.”

Financial investment in K-12 education far exceeds adult education support. We should expect no less support for adults – our neighbors, friends and family members who were impelled to drop out of school by difficult life issues or a regretted youthful decision. As we all need a second chance or ‘do-over’ in some facet of our lives, so do they. An investment in adult education is an investment in positive, transformative change in America and Americans’ lives, including: helping break cycles of educational apathy and intergenerational poverty, significantly reducing public social service costs, reducing unemployment and lowering incarceration rates and costs.

Additionally, it helps solve America’s skills gap by equipping our nation’s employers with a well-educated and highly-skilled workforce. Simply put, investing in adult education is an economic catalyst. For the sake of our nation’s global competitiveness, our adult education system must take our students further faster. We know we must be flexible, nimble and responsive, addressing the adult education-related challenges of America’s competitive skills crisis with a laser focus and sense of urgency. We stand at the ready to partner with employers and economic and workforce developers to do our part in closing America’s skill gap.

This article was originally published in the U.S. Chamber Foundation blog

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