Continuing Education: Why ‘Adult Education’ is Critical to Today’s Economy

Pam Sornson, JD

The economic chaos that has ensued through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond will take decades to repair. However, in that repair process, global and American businesses can take advantage of lessons learned during the public health crisis and rebuild themselves to be stronger, bigger, and better than before. One group that will almost certainly benefit from this ‘revisioning’ of the global industrial complex is the world’s population of ‘adult’ learners. These people have attained a certain age or level of experience and find themselves in need of additional education or training to become employed in the new global economy. 

Fortunately for those who live in California, the State’s Adult Education system (AE), based in its community colleges, is prepared to provide the programs these grownup learners need. Through them, AE students can meld their existing occupational skills with new, 21st Century capacities to enhance their value to their current or future employer.  


The High Value of Adult Education

Adult education has been a staple of America’s higher education system for decades. In the last century, as millions of immigrants arrived from distant places, the adult education courses that popped up across the states focused on teaching reading and writing English as a second language (literacy), fundamental math (numeracy), and basic skills for finding and keeping a job. These programs were different from those that represented the formality of the ‘university education’ or those training courses directed at developing specific trade skills. Instead, the AE programs gave learners the fundamental skills they needed to engage in and become part of their local community and society. 

As the need for AE grew, so did the recognition by learners and others that it offered not just the worker a step up into the community but also the community a cadre of laborers who brought their new talents as well as their already well-honed skills to their new jobs. Likewise, employers reaped the benefits of both the energy of the new American residents and the experience and knowledge they brought with them. 

The adult worker population also proved to be economically beneficial to their community too. The maturity of the worker often facilitated their swift onboarding into their new career, cutting down training time. In addition, their work ethic and work-related wisdom added depth to their labor and enhanced the quality of their productivity. And because many learners also had family and economic obligations, they remained motivated to stay on the job, reducing the associated cost of employee turnover. 

As the world turns to address the wounds inflicted over the past 18 months, millions of people now find themselves categorized as ‘adult learners’ since their previous occupation either no longer exists or has evolved into work for which they no longer have sufficient skillsets. These displaced workers will need additional training to find their 21st Century economic footing, and California’s community colleges will be the AE training provider through which they can achieve that end. 


California’s Adult Education Program – CAEP   

 California has invested millions in its CAEPs, which are situated across the state, in all of its 72 community college districts and more than 300 K-12 school districts and county offices of education. Aligned with the State’s equally ambitious Vision for Success (V4S) initiative, the CAEP offers the educational resources to assure that all state residents can find the additional training they seek, regardless of its purpose or goal. 

How the CAEP works:

Like the V4S program, the CAEP tracks AE student activities to determine the value of their continuing education inputs and how those connect with their employment goals. It is designed to follow students who aren’t ‘traditional’ college students – generally, they’re not right out of high school (although allocations of AE funding are for any student ‘over 18 years’); they’ve most likely already been in the workforce so they have job experience, and they need or want additional training to advance their earning capacity or their career or both. 

The CAEP tracks the same metrics as the V4S initiative does for California’s ‘traditional’ community college students:

enrollment numbers

improved literacy skills

student progress (through a course, program, or certificate process)

high school diploma or GED equivalent attainment

job placement activity

wage increases post-CAEP

transitions to 4-year schools

transitions to other post-secondary education opportunities, and

degrees and certifications that support employment.

By offering training in non-traditional AE subjects, the California community college system incorporates the needs of all its learners, regardless of their ultimate goal or intent.

Further, the CAEP emphasizes a series of ‘priority’ themes that overlay all of its activities:

That CAEP programs treat all learners equitably, as well as all partners and community members that engage in the CAEP system. 

That leaders lead based on the needs of their students and their communities, building partnerships and finding resources that support and grow the opportunities available to their particular student population.

That leaders focus on helping learners move through the CAEP system to achieve their personal goals, whatever those may be.

That communications are sufficient to attract the attention of all potential learners, whether those are through traditional means (such as billboards or radio ads) or through today’s many social media channels.

That courses and programs are both currently relevant and evaluated continually to ensure they stay that way. 

That technological advances are available to support all learners, whether they attend a physical campus or gain their education through remote means.     

The past year has demonstrated that ‘equity’ has many facets, from how classes are taught, how achievement gaps are addressed, and how historically disadvantaged students are supported to building cultural responsiveness and awareness into every aspect of every course. It also revealed how educational needs are changing and how technology plays an ever-growing role in educational policy and economic development. 

Economic and social chaos currently roils the community education landscape, just as they do every other social arena in the post-COVID era. Despite that reality, however, California’s CAEP continues its evolution to provide today’s and tomorrow’s adult learners with the training resources they need to find their way in the new post-COVID order. Moreover, considering how many workers were displaced and careers were disrupted by the pandemic, it appears California’s investment in its CAEP is both timely and critical to the State’s recovery from the crisis.    


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