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Adult Ed Facts

What Is The Adult Education System?

The adult education system refers to programs across the US that offer instruction ranging from basic literacy and numeracy and English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) to high school diploma equivalency, and college and career readiness.

NeedIn the US, over 30 million adults do not have a high school diploma and 20% of US adults with a high school diploma have only beginning literacy skills. The US ranked 21st in numeracy and 16th in literacy out of 24 countries in a recent assessment of adults' skills.i Two-thirds of U.S. adults scored at the two lowest levels of proficiency in solving problems in technology-rich environments. Yet, the publicly funded adult education system is able to serve only slightly over 2 million young and older adults per year.ii There are waiting lists for classes in all 50 states.iii Current levels of federal and state funding combined do not come close to meeting the need.

Providers: Adult education programs operate as free-standing organizations or as part of school districts, community colleges, municipalities, multi-services centers, libraries, faith-based organizations, housing developments, workplaces, and unions. Instruction is delivered by mostly part-time teachers and volunteer tutors.

Teacher Preparation: Given that many adult education teachers do not receive pre-service training beyond an orientation, in-service training is critical to ensure high quality services.

FundingThe national, average annual expenditure per adult learner is around $800. By contrast, the national, average annual per-pupil expenditure on public elementary and secondary education nationally is over $10,000. Adult education programs receive less than 10% of the amount of federal, state, and local funding that goes to K-12, and less than 5% of what is spent to support higher education.iv

Who Are The Adult Learners?

Working Poor or Those Looking for Work63% of adults with low academic skills are employed but earn low wages and lack the preparation to go to college.

YouthEvery year, over three million youth drop out of They join the 6.7 million youth between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither enrolled in school nor participating in the labor market.vii When they decide to complete their education, they enroll in adult education.

ImmigrantsBy 2030, nearly one in five US workers will be an immigrant.viii Nearly 20 million U.S. adults have limited English proficiency.

Parents: Most adult learners are parents and primary caregivers of school-age children. Many are motivated to return to school by wanting to serve as better role models for their children and help their children succeed in school.


A robust adult education system is an economic imperative for the economic prosperity of individuals and the nation. The US is falling behind other countries and cannot compete economically without improving the skills of its workforce. High school graduates and dropouts will find themselves largely left behind in the coming decade as employer demand for workers with postsecondary degrees continues to surge.

Adult Education Helps Children and Families Thrive.

One in four working families in our country is low income, and one in every five children lives in poverty.xv Studies have concluded that programs designed to boost the academic achievement of children from low income neighborhoods would be more successful if they simultaneously provided education to parents.

Adult Education Strengthens Communities and Democracy.

People with more education earn higher incomes and pay more taxes, which helps communities to prosper. They are less likely to be incarcerated and more motivated and confident to vote and make their voices heard on questions of public policy.

  1. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2013). Literacy, Numeracy, and Problem-Solving in Technology-Rich Environments Among US Adults: Results from Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies. Institute for Education Sciences, National Center for Education Statistics.
  2. National Council of State Directors of Adult Education. (2012).
  3. McLendon, L., Jones, D. and M. Rosin. (2011). The Return on Investment from Adult Education and Training. McGraw Hill Research Foundation.
  4. U.S. Census Bureau. (2011).
  5. Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC)
  6. High School Drop Out Statistics. (2014).
  7. Belfield, C., Levin, H. and Rosen, R. (2012). The Economic Value of Opportunity Youth, in association with Civic Enterprises for the W. K. Kellogg Foundation.
  8. Lowell, B., Julia Gelatt, J, Jeanne Batalova, J. (2006). Immigrants and Labor Force Trends: The Future, Past and Present. Washington, DC: Migration Policy Institute, 4,6.
  9. Wilson, J. (2014). Investing in English skills: The limited English proficient workforce in U.S. metropolitan areas. Washington, DC: Metropolitan Policy Program at Brookings.
  10. US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2015) Earnings and unemployment rates by educational attainment.
  11. US Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics. (2016). Employment status of the civilian population 25 years and over by educational attainment.
  12. US Census Bureau (2014). American Community Survey.
  13. Carnevale, A., Smith, N. and Strohl, J. (2010). Help Wanted. Projections of Jobs and Education Requirements through 2018.
  14. Council for Advancement of Adult Literacy. (2011). Adult Education: An Economic Imperative.
  15. Children's Defense Fund. (2014). Child Poverty in America: 2014.
  16. National Institutes for Health. (2010). Improving Mothers' Literacy Skills May Be Best Way to Boost Children's Achievement.
  17. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Health Literacy and Health Outcomes.
  18. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2013).
  19. McLendon, L., Jones, D. and M. Rosin. (2011).
  20. Steurer, S., Smith, L., and Tracy A. (2001). Three State Recidivism Study. Correctional Education Association.
  21. National Coalition for Literacy.
  22. Educational Testing Service. (2012). Fault Lines in Our Democracy. Civic Knowledge, Voting Behavior, and Civic Engagement in the United States.
  23. Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. (2013).