Why it Matters

Adult Literacy and Numeracy Facts

  • Americans are underprepared to compete in a global economy. One in six adults has low literacy skills. One in three has low numeracy skills. This proportion of low-skilled adults has remained relatively unchanged for the past 20 years.
  • An additional 60 million Americans lack the credentials and skills necessary to succeed in postsecondary education (The National Commission on Adult Literacy), and the United States has a larger population of low-skilled adults than most developed countries. (OECD)
  • In 2013, the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) released the U.S. results from the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) Survey of Adult Skills assessment on literacy, numeracy and problem solving in technology-rich environments (PST-RE). Results show that in the U.S.:
  • Adults are stagnating in literacy and doing worse in numeracy.  Adults ranked lower than most other countries in all three domains.

The average literacy score (270) was lower than the international average (273). U.S. scores were:

  • Lower than in 12 countries
  • Not significantly different than in 5 countries
  • Higher than in 5 countries

The average numeracy score (253) was also lower than the international average (269). U.S. scores were: 

  • Lower than in 18 countries
  • Not significantly different than in 2 countries
  • Higher than in 2 countries

An even higher proportion of U.S. adults are at the lowest levels (level 1 and below level 1) of numeracy.

The average PST-RE score (277) was also lower than the international average (283). U.S. scores were:

  • Lower than in 14 countries
  • Not significantly different than in 4 countries
  • Higher than in 4 countries

PIAAC has also shown that:

  • The U.S. has a large share of low skilled adults, those who perform below level 2.
  • Adults who come from poorly-educated families are 10 times more likely to have low skills.
  • Younger generations, 18-24 year olds, are only slightly outpacing, or are doing worse than older adults, unlike in many industrialized countries.

FAQs About the Adult Education and Literacy System

What is adult education and literacy?

Adult education and literacy programs help American adults in need of adult basic education, adult secondary education, and English language acquisition and civics to be successful as workers, family members, and citizens. These programs are also referred to as “adult education”.

Who does adult education serve?

Adult education helps adults without a high school diploma or equivalent to strengthen their literacy, numeracy, and problem-solving skills in adult basic education and adult secondary education classes. Adults obtain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in postsecondary education and employment, and to become economically self-sufficient. Many of these adults have diagnosed and undiagnosed learning disabilities.

Adult education also serves adults whose first language is not English. These adults, who make up 40% of the adults served in adult education, are immigrants, often seeking citizenship and are enrolled in English literacy and civics classes.

How is adult education funded nationally and on a state level? How do national funders divide up the total funding amount among the states?

One of the most significant sources of federal funding for adult education is Title II (the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act) of the 2014 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Federal funding is administered through the U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE). The amount each state receives is based on a formula established by Congress. States then distribute funds to local eligible providers of adult education services. Federal adult education funding is also supplemented by state and philanthropic funds.

Nationally, how many students have enrolled in adult education and literacy each year for the last 10 years?

Federal and state funding and enrollment have declined in the last 10 years—from nearly 2.8 million learners and over $700 million in federal funding in 2001—to 1.8 million learners and $595 million in federal funding in 2012.

According to CLASP, “Although federal adult education has traditionally been supplemented by sizeable state-level matching funds, a decline in federal and state funding for adult education has resulted in states serving only fraction of the students—2 million out of 93 million—who could benefit from services”[i] (CLASP, 2012).

From the Adult Education and Literacy Act 1998 Annual Report to Congress, Program Year 2011-2012:

What are the demographics for students pursuing adult education?

How Adult Education Helps Break the Cycle, and the Impact It Makes in Families' Lives

What difference does adult education make in adult learners’ lives?

Adult education helps adults break cycles of intergenerational poverty and illiteracy by giving them the skills they need to succeed as workers, family members, and citizens. Stories adult educators hear every day include the successes adult learners achieve, for example, because they:

  • can read, write, and do math
  • are now able to get and keep a job, as part of a meaningful career path, that provides family-sustaining wages
  • can help their children with their homework and be role models for younger generations
  • become citizens and contribute to their communities
  • succeed in postsecondary education and training
  • break the cycle of incarceration and recidivism and lead a life free of crime
  • achieve their dreams

According to adult graduate Chelsea Howard of New Orleans, LA, “…if you keep your momentum, adjust your path when necessary, and do not give up, you can accomplish anything.” Adult education programs and teachers help adult learners do just that.

See more adult learner success stories here.

The difference adult education makes for workers:  Adults with higher education earn more.

The difference adult education makes for children and families: Parents can lift themselves and their families out of poverty, breaking intergenerational cycles of poverty and illiteracy.

  • According to CLASP’s analysis of the 2014 Census Data Report, almost half (more than four in ten) of all children and young adults live in low-income households that are below 200 percent of the poverty line. (For more information, see the CLASP Fact Sheet on poverty)
  • 43% of adults at the lowest levels of literacy live in poverty compared to only 4% of those at the highest. (begintoread.com)
  • A mother’s reading skill is the greatest determinant of her children’s future academic success, outweighing other factors, such as neighborhood and family income (NIH, 2010).
  • A single year of parental education has a greater positive impact on the likelihood of a son or daughter attending a postsecondary institution than does an extra $50,000 in parental income (Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario, 2011).
  • Adult education is also an investment in the future of our nation, as research shows that better educated parents raise better-educated, more successful children, who are less likely to end up in poverty or prison.  (The Return on Investment from Adult Education and Training)