The New Workforce Bill, Adult Learners, and Pathways to Higher Education: Things Just Got a Little Easier

Blog Post
July 27, 2014

After more than a decade of on-again, off-again negotiations, the Workforce Investment Act of 1998 (WIA) was finally reauthorized on Tuesday, July 22nd. WIA was the country’s signature federal program supporting workforce development activities such as occupational training, adult education, and job search assistance. The program also supports a variety of services to at-risk and disconnected youth, including Job Corps, YouthBuild, and high school recovery programs. WIA funds find their way to community colleges across the country to support students in a wide variety of career education programs, mostly at the certificate level.

WIA has been up for reauthorization since 2003, which might give one the impression that there were profound policy disagreements delaying the process. But the new law, called the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), is noteworthy more for its continuity with the original law than for any major changes. The structure of the law remains unchanged, and the reforms are mostly directed at improving coordination and linkages across various programs through the use of better performance metrics and labor market data.

One change that should be of particular interest to community colleges is that the new law authorizes the use of federal adult education funds to support integrated education and training (IET) programs that contextualize basic skills education around training for a specific occupation, often at the postsecondary level. Under the original law, adult education funds could only be used to pay for instruction in basic math and literacy skills leading to the attainment of a high school credential. The funds could not pay for job training. Adult education students had to complete their basic education program before they could even qualify for programs teaching postsecondary job skills, even though the desire to gain skills and credentials for work is probably what brought them to the adult education program in the first place. Not surprisingly, many individuals failed to complete their basic skills program, leaving them without a high school credential or job skills.

A group of determined policymakers in Washington state came up with an innovative approach to getting around the funding restriction that allowed them to integrate and contextualize their adult education programs with postsecondary occupational programs. The approach, called I-BEST, put two teachers in the classroom – one to impart the adult education curricula and the other to teach the postsecondary vocational curricula – and enabled individuals to earn a high school credential, college credits, and industry-recognized credentials at one time. Rigorous evaluation of the approach revealed its effectiveness for helping low-skilled adults succeed at college-level work and increased their likelihood not only of earning a high school credential, but also a postsecondary certificate or degree. Designing a basic skills program around the desire of many adults for access to better jobs has proven highly effective, increasing motivation and persistence. The program has become a national model and has been adopted by states and community colleges across the country.

But the challenge around scaling this proven approach has always been in the financing. In the case of Washington, the state legislature stepped up and provided dedicated funding to support two faculty members in the classroom. Other state legislatures have not been so generous, leaving colleges with the difficult task of figuring out how finance the programs, since adult education funds could not be used to pay faculty teaching the technical skills. The solution was to enroll students in the Federal Student Aid program under the “Ability to Benefit” (ATB) provision that allowed students without a high school diploma to access Pell grants if they could demonstrate the ability to do college-level work by completing six credit hours. With the help of federal student aid, colleges across the country were able to finance these “bridge” programs, creating a new pathway for thousands of low-skilled adults into postsecondary education and careers.

Despite strong evidence on the effectiveness of IET programs supported through Pell dollars, Congress removed the Ability to Benefit provision from the Higher Education Act (HEA) in 2012. The result was to cast a pall on the further development of these important programs and re-introduce yet another barrier to the millions of adults lacking a high school credential but needing postsecondary job skills.

The good news is that WIOA authorizes the use of federal adult education funds for IET programs. What exactly that means on the ground still needs to be fleshed out a bit more by the Department of Education lawyers, but it’s safe to say that the law is moving toward providing greater flexibility to providers of integrated programs for low-skilled adults. It’s a small victory, but one that hopefully points to greater understanding within Congress on the importance of providing accelerated pathways to meaningful skills and credentials for low-skilled adults. The bad news is that the adult education budget is tiny and is not going to cover the costs of delivering IET programs at scale. In 2012, Congress allocated just over six hundred million dollars to the federal adult education program and it served around 1.7 million adults. The low-skilled adult population in the United States is estimated at 36 million and most adult education programs have long waiting lists. Without access to the federal student aid program, these adults are still unlikely to find support for their education and training needs.

HEA reauthorization is still a long way off, though ATB could be restored without a full reauthorization. Now that WIOA has fixed the problems to building IET programs on the adult education side, let’s hope Congress follows up with the necessary changes on the HEA side.