Policies to Promote Adult Education and Postsecondary Alignment

This resource describes policies to promote adult education and postsecondary education alignment.

Strawn, J.
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
National Commission on Adult Literacy
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This brief focuses on how to help more lower-skilled and/or those with limited English proficiency adults earn postsecondary credentials that open doors to family-supporting jobs. This is not the task of adult education alone but must also be the work of postsecondary education and workforce development institutions. This should be a national priority, for two reasons:

  • Many workers are stuck in low-wage jobs, and postsecondary credentials can help them qualify for jobs that pay enough to support a family.
  • Employers in many sectors and regions of the country either face skill shortages currently or will in the near future.

While the business community and legislators often point to K-12 school reform as the solution, school reform alone cannot fix these problems. About two-thirds of our 2020 workforce is already beyond the reach of our elementary and secondary schools, and education trends for youth entering the workforce are going in the wrong direction. If we are to avoid ever-worsening inequality in skills and income and to meet the employer demand for skilled workers, then we must enable more adults to gain marketable postsecondary credentials. In fact, the current potential pool of skilled workers among prime-age adults is equal to the next 17 years of high school classes. The bottom line is that we need to "grow our own" skilled workforce for the future from within the workforce we already have.

One major factor behind these discouraging outcomes is the lack of alignment between federal and state adult education, job training, and postsecondary education policies.

  • Lower-skilled adults typically need help from multiple agencies, but few states track their education and economic outcomes over time, across services, and into the labor market.
  • Adult education services typically are not aimed at preparing students either for careers or for postsecondary education or training, although a clear majority of students have these goals.
  • Federal job training to lower-skilled individuals has declined over the last decade under the
  • Workforce Investment Act (WIA), and there is very little collaboration with adult education.
  • Postsecondary education and training typically does not coordinate, dual enroll, or align services with adult education in the way that it increasingly does with high schools. As a result, even adult education students who earn their GEDs generally must enroll in remediation again at the college level, at which their chances of earning a degree are slim.

There are two additional major obstacles: adult students face financial, personal, and family challenges; and adult and postsecondary education and training institutions lack the capacity to respond effectively to these challenges. Students often must work full-time while attending school
(and, often, taking care of children)—making it unlikely they will complete their programs. Yet federal and state financial aid leaves a large gap between costs and the resources of lower-skilled adults.

If our country’s mediocre and worsening workforce skills pose a real and urgent threat to economic growth and individual opportunity, and our current set of public policies is inadequate to address this, what can we do to change this? Because this task is too large for adult education to take on alone, our recommendations go beyond the adult education system to an array of federal and state funding streams and agencies that have a part to play in helping lower-skilled adults earn marketable postsecondary credentials. These recommendations fall into three areas critical to progress:

  1. Increase state capacity to track individual outcomes across adult and postsecondary education and training services, over time, and into the labor market; and use this data to set goals for improvement.
  2. Integrate adult education and English language services with postsecondary education and training to increase attainment of credentials leading to family-supporting jobs.

To support such state efforts, we should revise federal adult education and workforce development policy to clarify that these federal funds can be used for integrated adult education and postsecondary occupational programs. We should also make helping lower-skilled adults reach their career and postsecondary education goals an explicit and central part of the mission of the federal adult education program—and revise program definitions, performance measures, and reporting requirements accordingly. Changes are also needed in WIA’s adult training program, to ensure that lower-skilled adults can access needed adult education and postsecondary education and training services.

  1. Adapt financial aid policies to the needs of lower-skilled adults, and support their success in adult and postsecondary education and training.

Helping more adults earn marketable postsecondary credentials is critical to the twin national goals of increasing economic competitiveness and sharing the benefits of prosperity more widely. Because many adults have low literacy and numeracy skills, limited English proficiency, or both, remediation and English language instruction linked to postsecondary education and training in demand occupations and industries has to be part of the solution. The recommendations in this Brief would go a long toward making such services more available, accessible, and effective for lower-skilled adults.

Benefits and Uses

Policies to Promote Adult Education and Postsecondary Education, is focused on “helping adults with lower skills and/or limited English proficiency earn postsecondary credentials that open doors to family-supporting jobs.” The Policy Brief examines obstacles to moving toward this goal – with major attention to lack of alignment between federal and state adult education efforts, job training services, and postsecondary Education policies. It also draws attention to the financial, personal, and family challenges that prevent adults from seeking and completing programs. Numerous policy and action recommendations are given.