Adult Education Data Show Signs of Declining Investment

This week, New America’s Federal Education Budget Project announced the addition of state and federal adult education data to its publicly available database including demographic, finance, and outcomes information for every state, school district, and institution of higher education in the country, as well as detailed background information about the program.

Adult education is an often-overlooked segment of the America education system that does not fit neatly into our usual categories of primary, secondary and postsecondary education. It occupies a unique position, serving individuals generally old enough for college, but who lack the skills or credentials associated with high school. The opportunity to earn a high school credential can be a crucial step for adults seeking a better job or a postsecondary degree. And don’t let the relatively low levels of funding fool you into thinking that the demand for adult education is small. To the contrary, some estimates put the number of adults in need of basic skills or English language training at over 90 million, while our federally and state-funded adult education programs serve a mere 2 million individuals. A 2010 survey of State Directors of Adult Education revealed that many states have waiting lists of over 150,000 people. According to the OECD’s recent Adult Skills Survey, the United States has a very large percentage of low-skilled adults compared to other advanced economies: Nearly one in six Americans lack basic academic skills, compared to one-in-twenty Japanese.

The large and growing population of adults lacking a high school diploma or its equivalency represents a significant threat to our economic competitiveness and our history of broadly shared prosperity and social mobility. Over the past decade, and with even greater alacrity since the recession, family-sustaining jobs requiring only a high school education have disappeared. Poverty and unemployment rates among low-skilled adults have sky-rocketed and show little signs of abating, even as the economy slowly recovers. But even as the need for adult education has grown, federal and state investments have declined. While Congress spent around $600 million on adult education last year, with states matching a portion of those funds, federal funding for adult education has declined by more than 20 percent over the decade, and state spending by nearly 8 percent (inflation-adjusted).

Adult Education Data Show Signs of Declining Investment
Figure 1 (New America)

By including federal and state expenditures in the Federal Education Budget Project database, we aim to raise awareness of adult education and its place in the broader education system. To check out your state, check out the PreK-12 or higher education portions of our database. On the PreK-12 side, we’ve also included a comparison to the national average to provide additional context. The site displays state and federal figures on adult education spending over time, as well as changes in enrollment, demographics, and program focus. You can also see information on the state’s elementary and secondary schools or institutions of higher education, respectively.

Adult Education Data Show Signs of Declining Investment
Figure 2 (New America)

We encourage researchers, advocacy groups and policymakers to dig into the data, ask questions, and leverage the site as a resource for better understanding the current state, and future needs, for funding in adult education. We know that millions of Americans require additional training and education to achieve economic self-sufficiency for themselves and their families. We also know that without access to a highly skilled and educated workforce, U.S. employers cannot compete. Adult education will be an increasingly essential element of any competitiveness strategy moving forward. It’s time we paid more attention to it."


Mary Alice McCarthy is the director of the Center on Education and Skills with the Education Policy program at New America. Her work examines the intersection between higher education, workforce development, and job training policies

Clare McCann was a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America.