Declining Enrollment in Federally Funded Adult Education: Critical Questions for the Field
Posted by Laura McLoughlin on June 22, 2022 in categoryFacts & Research

Since the mid-1990s, enrollment in federally funded adult education programs has consistently declined. While people might feel compelled to single out specific reasons for the decline—the rise of the gig economy, which does not require a high school diploma, or the pandemic—it’s important to note that those are just little pieces of a long-term downward trend. 

In Adult Literacy Education: The International Journal of Literacy, Language, and Numeracy, Amy Pickard of Indiana University shares her viewpoint on the topic in “Declining Enrollment in Federally Funded Adult Education: Critical Questions for the Field.” Pickard tries to answer the question of why enrollment is declining and looks at the roles of policy, funding, learner interest, and technology. 

Read an excerpt from Pickard’s essay:  

Given that graduation rates have gone up, it seems reasonable to suggest there may be a growing lack of interest in AE programs that are structured to lead to a high school equivalency degree. Although assessed skill levels have remained more or less the same, it is likely that the credential itself – rather than an interest in skills improvement – drove the participation of large numbers of learners. Simultaneously, there is some evidence that a top-down approach to adult education, such as the one created by the present federal accountability system, might discourage enrollment from a broader range of participants. International development literature and adult learning theory suggest that involvement from adults in the direction and nature of their learning is essential for engagement (Walters, 2014). It seems possible that the increasing narrowness of the field (Belzer, 2017) might serve as a disincentive for some adults interested in other things. Programming that allows for more variety and student input, such as adult diploma programs and online learning opportunities, may be more popular than “traditional” ABE/ASE programs (Gopalakrishnan, 2008), as might the increasingly available vocationally focused programs. An exploration of participation rates in alternatives to traditional ABE/ASE programs could help shed light on whether other models of instruction might be more attractive to students. 

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