Adult Learning in Focus: National and State-by-State Data

This report provides a comprehensive look about what was known in 2008 about adult participation in education nationally and across the fifty states.

Peter Ewell (NCHEMS)
Patrick Kelly (NCHEMS)
Rebecca Klein-Collins (CAEL)
Author(s) Organizational Affiliation
Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) in partnership with National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS)
Publication Year
Resource Type
Number of Pages

This report from the Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL) uses numerous data sets to provide evidence about what is known about adult learning nationally and across each of the fifty states and to identify gaps that hinder increasing numbers of Americans from earning a living wage (defined by some as 150 percent of minimum wage). The authors stress the policy implications of addressing these gaps to gain a better understanding of education levels and patterns of learning.

The authors show that available jobs with living wages will be difficult to come by for adults who lack the higher skills, knowledge, credentials or degrees that are earned in the post-secondary education. The report highlights the importance of adult education in helping to close the growing gap between the nation's postsecondary attainment and that of other countries, and makes the case that individuals, states and the nation will benefit if larger numbers of adult citizens earn postsecondary credentials. 

However, the data show that the current educational system has not produced the highly educated workforce we need, and it has not always served the nontraditional student well- adults with no high school diploma, have not attended college and earning less than a living wage, and speak little or no English. To move forward and remain competitive, we need to better understand how to engage more adults in learning-in our current system and also outside traditional learning pathways. The authors use data to illustrate four significant barriers and discuss ways to address them: affordability of postsecondary education, accessibility, availability, and aspiration to seek opportunities.

Specific data for each state are also available for download as well as a Companion Guide to help users better understand how to use the findings of the report, implications for adult learning priorities, and specific actions that states can take.

What the experts say

While I primarily examined the report, the entire website and its publications should be considered as resources, including the executive summary and policy guide.

In this report, Adult Education seems to be characterized as something provided by the federal government without clear acknowledgement of the high level of funding contributed by states. In addition, the report says that "states vary widely in how they administer ABE programs, as well as in the degree to which they track and report outcomes". The report would be strengthened by providing information and data from the National Reporting System.

This report provides detailed and comprehensive data on the status of adult education in United States at both the national and state levels. Among its most significant features are:

  • By comparing how states perform on educating adults, the data demonstrate that significant barriers, especially the affordability and accessibility to postsecondary education for the nontraditional learner, remains high.
  • By presenting what is know about adult participation in the educational system and indicating what is now known, this report points directly to the future research needed to develop priorities and policies to meet the critical workforce demands of this century.
  • State and local policy makers can use the national and state data to identify priorities for resource allocation to develop an educated workforce not reliant on a traditional K-12 and traditional college student educational system.

Methods the resource used to collect and analyze the data for the research: The authors synthesize multiple data sets from Departments of Education and Labor, National Center for Higher Education Management Systems (NCHEMS) U.S. Census Bureau, American Council on Education-GED Testing Service, and Workforce Alliance Interactive State Database. They begin with an analysis of why an educated citizenry is important, and what the payoffs are for individuals, states, and the nation. Data are provided to illustrate participation in the current adult postsecondary education and adult literacy systems, including the uneven success rate of moving adults through traditional educational pipelines. The authors then further analyze the data to identify barriers to adult participation and propose policies to address them.