The Impact of ABS Program Participation on Long-Term Economic Outcomes
The Longitudinal Study of Adult Learning (LSAL) compared adult literacy development among program participants and nonparticipants across multiple contexts and over significant periods of time to provide a life-wide and lifelong perspective on adult literacy development and a better assessment of program impact on a range of outcome measures. LSAL randomly sampled about 1,000 high school dropouts and followed them for nearly a decade from 1998–2007. LSAL followed both participants and nonparticipants in Adult Basic Skills (ABS) programs, assessing their literacy skills and skill uses over long periods of time, along with changes in their social, educational, and economic status, offering a rich picture of adult literacy development.
Research Questions: This report, the first of a series of Research Briefs that utilize LSAL data to examine long-term impacts of ABS program participation on a range of outcome measures, considers the long-term impact of participation on individuals’ earnings. It addresses the following research questions:
- What is the impact of participating in an ABS program on subsequent earnings?
- What is the time course of that impact?
- To what extent does GED attainment mediate the impact of participation on earnings?
Results: The wage trajectories of these two subpopulations are remarkably different. Participants started off in 1997 with earnings much lower than those of nonparticipants and experienced a gradually rising income across time, while the nonparticipants started at a much higher average income level in 1997, which remained fairly constant across the decade despite some ups and downs. As participants’ incomes increased and those of nonparticipants remained roughly stable, the income gap between the two subpopulations diminished until the mean income of participants finally exceeded that of nonparticipants in 2007.
The results of this research are clear. Three different methods—treatment effects, difference-in-differences, and fixed effects panel regressions—all show statistically significant and financially substantial impacts of ABS program participation on earnings growth. Individuals who participate in programs have higher future earnings as a result of participating, income premiums are larger with more intensive participation, and minimal levels of participation do not produce statistically significant premiums. It is important to note that this income premium takes time (on the order of years) to develop after participation.
Limitations: Because of the complexity of the program participation patterns observed, LSAL’s relatively small sample size limits the precision with which estimates can be made of how many hours of attendance and how long a follow-up period are required to see a significant earnings premium of a given size. Details vary with the measure of participation and analytical method used. The specifics likely vary with characteristics of programs and participants. Additional research with larger longitudinal data sets and those drawn from other contexts can help clarify some of these important details.
Although ABS program evaluation and accountability reports typically show small gains for program participants in test scores and other outcomes, these studies rarely include comparison groups of nonparticipants, and most studies that do include such controls have not found statistically significant ABS program impact. Research is needed that compares long-term outcomes among program participants and nonparticipants across multiple contexts and over significant periods of time to provide a life-wide and lifelong perspective on adult literacy development and a better assessment of program impact on a range of outcome measures.