Economic Catalyst

Adult Education is an Economic Catalyst

Adult Education is an economic catalyst that helps engage every able-bodied worker. Thirty six million adults read at or below the fourth-grade reading level, and sixty million adults lack basic numeracy skills. Adult Education helps get these individuals off the bench and into the workforce and community college. It enables them to be tax paying citizens contributing to the growth of our economy.

There is a huge concern about economic disparity in this country. Strengthening work force skills through adult education is one of the primary vehicles for giving Americans a sense of hope and opportunity to rebuild the Middle Class. 

This is an important moment in time. As stakeholders in states look to implement WIOA, it is crucial that education service providers and workforce development programs come together and start thinking about investing in and engaging with these programs differently.

This is more than just calling for better access to and awareness of education and job resources. This is about the different pieces of the education and workforce development systems across the country realizing that they have a role to play in a movement with a similar mission: ensuring economic justice for one of our most underserved populations.


1. The Problem

Millions of adults in America never learned to read, perform simple math, use a computer, or creatively solve problems. This skills gap is increasing inequality, and it is hurting individuals, families, communities, the U.S. economy, and our nation’s competitiveness. 

In an increasingly competitive world, America needs as many of our people workforce-ready as possible. Building our economy means working together with employers and workforce development boards to empower individuals, families, and communities, with the educational opportunities they need. America cannot continue to ignore millions of its residents who never learned to read proficiently, perform simple math, use a computer, or creatively solve problems.

The problem is larger than we realize

  • More than 36 million adults in American cannot read or write at the most basic level.

  • More than 60 million lack basic math skills necessary to work a cash register or understand a bus schedule.

  • Every year, one in three young adults drop out of high school.

  • Nearly half the U.S. workforce today, approximately 52 million adults, has only a high school education or less, while 25 million workers aged 18 to 64 lack even a high school diploma or GED.

  • Adults who come from poorly-educated families are 10 times more likely to have low skills.

  • 60 million Americans lack the credentials and skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education

It has a dramatic impact on our economy

  • Adults without a high school diploma are more than twice as likely to be living in poverty than high school graduates, and more than three times as likely to be unemployed than adults with college degrees.

  • The costs of low literacy are estimated to be around $225 billion due to loss of tax revenue from unemployment, reduced workforce productivity, and crime.

  • More than two-thirds of students with low literacy skills in 4th grade end up in jail or on welfare.

  • Low literacy skills are directly linked to inequality, higher rates of unemployment, lower income and poor health.

  • Patients with low literacy skills have a 50 percent increased risk of hospitalization.

The United states isn’t keeping up

  • The United States ranked in the bottom third of 24 surveyed countries for adult skills in literacy, numeracy, and problem solving.

  • Americans now consistently score below the international average on problem solving skills, a key determinant of success in an increasingly digital era.

2. The Challenges

America’s adult education system is broken. Our services are underfunded, fragmented, and inadequate.

America’s adult education system is broken. Our services are underfunded, fragmented, and often inadequate. We’re not serving nearly the number of people who need to be served. It’s an afterthought of funders. 

  • We need services that help individuals succeed, employers meet staffing needs, and families move away from reliance on social programing and spiraling interaction with the legal system.

  • We must help adults who may have failed or missed out at school and immigrants striving to assimilate by learning English and desiring to pass the Citizenship Test to become a US Citizen.


  • Federal funds reach only 1.5 million of 36 million adults who need basic skills instruction.

  • Federal funding for adult education has declined by 17% over the last 6 years.

  • Last year, a bipartisan Congressional coalition authorized $635 million to be split by the states in 2016-17 for adult basic education under Title II of WIOA, the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.

  • Average national spending per adult learner is around $800 annually. The average for public elementary and secondary education is around $10,000 a year.


Once high school students leave alternative education, they aren’t connected to adult learning or pathways programs.
Barriers between sectors result in breakdowns in services.
Adult learning providers need strategic investment to help them expand their approach to literacy to include financial and health literacy.


  • 3 million adults are not enrolled in services, but want to be.

  • Existing programs are difficult to access for those with jobs as they are almost always in-person. As a result, these programs serve less than one percent of the population that needs them.

  • Postsecondary education systems often don’t make effective use of adult learning providers who know how to provide developmental education for students most in need of support.

3. Why It Matters

Adult basic education is a path from low-income jobs and dead-end futures to the middle class and family sustainability.

Adult basic education helps make America more competitive, builds stronger communities, and adds to our tax base while containing costs. We can put adults on sustainable paths out of poverty and open up new avenues to financial security and the middle class. And we can do it with a basic tool: education.  Adult basic education lets Americans turn things around for themselves with a hand up, not a hand out. Its impact can last for generations.

Education opens doors

  • Adult education gives those without basic reading and number skills a shot at finding a job, launching a career, educating their own children and living healthier lives. They can become homeowners and taxpayers instead of being reliant on social service programs.

  • Those who enroll in adult basic education services are often working multiple jobs and have multiple responsibilities and commitments that they are juggling. They make the time to attend classes because they understand that education is what they need to better their life and the lives of their families. In many respects, they are the unsung heroes who have been stigmatized and misunderstood by the general public for far too long.

  • Education levels have more effect over lifetime earnings than any other demographic factor including gender and race.

  • A mother’s education level is the surest determinant of her children’s future academic success, outweighing other factors like neighborhood and family income. Mothers and fathers who learn to read, even late in life, are far better equipped to help their kids grow than parents who lack basic literacy skills.

  • Inmates who are educated while incarcerated are 43 percent less likely to return to prison.

The numbers add up

  • Funding adult education pays for itself: for every dollar invested in these services, a community gets $60 back in decreased welfare costs, tax revenue, and economic activity.

  • Some studies show that higher literacy numbers could lift the national income level as much as $240 billion and decrease annual healthcare costs by an estimated $230 billion.

  • 100 hours or more of adult education attendance equates to $9,621 in extra earnings per year.

4. How We Can Help

COABE partners with numerous national level partners and over 40 state association organizations nationwide. Our current membership is 23,000 members strong and growing, and our reach extends to over 65,000+ contacts that have aligned with COABE.

Our national conferences, regional institutes, and professional development webinars are recognized as the best in the field, with participation increasing substantially each year resulting in increased funding and services to the field.

We repeatedly hear from our members that they view us the voice of adult education, and we see our role as supporting OCTAE’s role out of WIOA through webinars and a dedicated strand at our national conference. We also see our role as serving as a national convener of partners and funders to support a national public affairs and awareness campaign that will engage potential students, employers, policy makers, and the general public. We believe that this can be accomplished in a cost effective yet impactful manner by leveraging new and existing partnerships and resources.


  • COABE’s members are the innovators and service providers on the ground who help underserved adults gain skills and affirmation, we see crucial challenges and emerging solutions that policymakers and funders often miss.

  • Our core work focuses on expanding access and funding for adult education services while reducing waiting lists for these services.

Students and Educators

  • COABE is the premier convener of national level partners and state association organizations, and we fight for educators and students. Our primary objectives are advocacy, awareness, and professional development.

  • COABE members have access to shared professional development resources, discounts from educational vendors and publications, and networking and employment opportunities.

  • COABE taps into the strength of a 25,000+ contact grassroots network of educators and administrators to advocate for increased funding and additional resources for services.

  • COABE’s annual conference continues to grow from just under 750 attendees in 2012 to nearly 2,500 attendees in 2019 and brings together well-respected national level strand partners and members to share best practices, showcase top vendors, and celebrate the successes of our students, educators, and administrators.

  • COABE is proud to work with many other national and state organizations to raise the voice for a group of the people dedicated to this vital work who have no organized presence and are typically overlooked by the government and funders.