Lifelong learning in the United States: Challenges and Opportunities

Wed 08 Jun 2016 10:22:00 AM EEST

Outdated adult learning policy, digital revolution and declining level of adult literacy – these are the main challenges of American adult education today. However, there are many opportunities in adult education, as well. EAEA discusses with Steve Schmidt and Federico Salas-Isnardi from the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education (AAACE) about the current state of adult education in the United States.

According to studies, the performance of adults with a high-school diploma or some college education has dropped in recent years in the United States.

There are multiple systems that address different adult needs and different topics in the United States. “Because the field of adult education is very broad, it can be difficult to discuss it as a whole” explains Steve Schmidt, Past-President of AAACE. “Sub-sections of the overall field are diverse, as are the providers of adult education”.

Steve Schmidt“Many different community-based organisations at local, state, and regional levels offer all types of adult education opportunities. Colleges and universities provide educational opportunities for adults as well,” Schmidt explained.

For example, workplace training and development is considered an aspect of adult education, and handled at the individual business or industry level. Trends in workplace training and development indicate that opportunities for employees to learn and grow continue to increase each year. The growth of online and blended learning programs for employees has helped to fuel this trend.

In other areas of adult education, challenges persist. The funding for adult basic education programmes has been stagnant for years and in the last four years it has seen a net reduction of over 5 %.

“Adult basic education is not a priority in this country; it has never been. An example of that is the fact that for 11 years adult education programmes were allowed to continue operating under the outdated rules of the […] law that expired in 2003,” explains Federico Salas-Isnardi, Director of the Commission for Adult Basic Education and Literacy at AAACE. While the focus on workplace training is important, it does sometimes overshadow other aspects of adult education, including family literacy and learning for personal growth.

Adult education can increase the equality of opportunities

Steve Schmidt points out that workers also change jobs and careers more often than ever before, and more adults are turning to education at many different points in their lives and careers.

“The Internet has opened up a whole world of learning for adults who may have no, or limited, access to traditional learning opportunities. At the same time, those who don't have access to computers and the Internet are left behind,” he says.

While there are many more career opportunities available these days, those who don't have access to educational opportunities, due to things like lack of time, money, or other resources, are not able to participate – and therefore, not able to move up – or around – in their careers.

“Shifting through so many different opportunities can be overwhelming. Appropriate guidance and counseling is helpful in making decisions about options, “ says Dr. Schmidt.

Literacy levels are decreasing

The 1993 National Adult Literacy Survey (NALS) drew attention to the incidence of functional illiteracy. By 2003, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) showed that while the number of adults functioning at the lowest literacy levels had decreased, so had the number functioning at the proficient level.

Federico Salas-Isnardi“The literacy performance of adults with a high-school diploma or some college education had dropped in the decade between the two studies drawing attention to the decline in prose and document literacy tasks in our educational programmes,” explains Mr. Salas-Isnardi.

The recent Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) study puts the performance of American adults again in a negative light as they underperform their counterparts in other developed nations with the performance of the US’ adult population trailing the international averages in all measures – literacy, quantitative, and problem solving in a technology-rich environment.

“When considered alongside the results of the 2012 Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) study showing that 15 year-olds in this country also underperform their counterparts in other nations, the prognosis for an improvement in the literacy of adults is not optimistic,” says Mr. Salas-Isnardi.

The aging population – the hope for lifelong learning?

Despite the diverse challenges, Steve Schmidt is not concerned of the status of adult education in the American society. The demand of learning services for the ageing population and the needs of work life might strengthen the position of lifelong learning.

“I think there continues to be an increasing interest in adult education – in all its forms – in North America. Adults turn to education so they can fulfill professional and personal goals, and all of these types of goals change throughout one’s lifetime. Furthermore, as Baby Boomers retire, they want to stay active and want to continue to learn and grow, so many of them are involved in adult education as learners and as teachers,” Dr. Schmidt says.

Interview: Aura Vuorenrinne
Photos: Jason Parrish and AAACE