Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Adult Basic Education

Why do those who need the most get the least?

Elite universities and colleges get far more funding per student than their less elite counterparts.  Community colleges, which are even less elite, get even less.  And adult basic education, which serves the very most vulnerable students, gets the least of all.

Adult basic education is a clunky umbrella term that encompasses a range of non-credit skills courses.  Typical offerings include ESL/ESOL, adult literacy/basic writing, arithmetic, study skills, personal finance, GED prep, and very basic applied computing.  They’re the kinds of classes that recent immigrants, high school dropouts, and people who have had very challenging lives take in order to move into the mainstream of the society and the economy.  

Community colleges don’t always teach much ABE, but they frequently work closely with agencies that do.  In the best cases, they might even share facilities and build explicit pathways for students who make good progress, and who want to, to find their way to college.  But even for students who have no intention of trying college, the payoff from improving literacy and basic numeracy is palpable.  The payoff is even greater when you realize that many ABE students are also parents.  When parents learn how to read to their kids, the payoff plays out over generations.

And as badly as community colleges are funded -- longtime readers may have noticed me mention that once or twice -- ABE programs are often even leaner.

It’s certainly not for lack of demand.  Many of our programs have long waiting lists, and the only limiting factor in running them is funding.  Prospective students are out there in tremendous numbers, and I don’t see that changing anytime soon.  With the decline of low-skill manufacturing jobs, the legal options for someone barely literate to make a decent living are few and far between.  Increased economic segregation has clustered the most desperate people together, meaning that the informal connections that may once have existed to opportunities aren’t what they once were.  And it’s not as if the K-12 system is flawless.

At the college level, declining funding from states has led -- at least in part -- to cost-shifting to students.  (It has also led to various budget cuts on campus, but that’s another post.)  That’s a significant part of what’s driving tuition increases, particularly since 2008.  But cost-shifting to students isn’t really an option in ABE.  The courses don’t carry academic credit, so they aren’t eligible for financial aid, and most of these students are barely scraping by as it is.  Philanthropy helps, but it’s not up to the scale of the problem; federal and state grants help, but they also tend to be too small, and to carry high administrative costs.  In the absence of a sustained direct subsidy, these programs largely depend on the kindness of strangers.

In a more rational world, programs like “adult literacy” would be much higher priorities.  If a kid who might have gone to Penn has to settle for Bucknell, she’ll be fine.  But if a young mother never learns to read, the damage done is real, and felt over generations.

Sorry to get so preachy this time.  I just saw some ABE students today talk about their experiences and the differences that the programs had made in their lives, and I haven’t been able to shake the sense that as a country, we have done something badly wrong.