No One Left Behind

No One Left Behind

June, 1915



During the 2016 campaign, both political parties promised to address poverty and income inequality. A Republican might have had a different approach to this problem than a Democrat, but both would have called for increasing the skills of our workforce. A component of any plan to address this need should seek to increase enrolment and completion rates in community college programs that lead to higher paying careers.

Unfortunately, many Americans who might benefit from a community college education lack the basic skills and credentials needed to succeed. To be successful in both academic and vocational programs, students must have sufficient literacy and math skills. In addition, before entering a community college, potential students must have strong English language skills, and most community colleges require a high school credential before a student is admitted or awarded a degree.

Data from the 2012 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC) provides an opportunity to estimate how many Americans are not prepared to benefit from a policy that expands access to community college. PIAAC assessed the literacy and math skills of adults 16 to 65 years of age, but, for our analysis, we looked only at 25 to 54 year olds to avoid including people who are still in high school or college and to focus on the age group that is more likely to pursue education or training at a community college. Since literacy and math scores are highly correlated in PIAAC, we looked only at literacy scores. Of the 126 million adults in this age group, 50 million have a postsecondary credential and 22 million have only a high school credential but have sufficient language and literacy skills to be successful in a community college. For our analysis, we chose Level 3 of the five levels of literacy skill identified in PIAAC as the threshold for success because earlier research has shown it to be a transition point in measures of vocabulary, word reading rate, spelling, reading for pleasure, income, employment, civic participation, and health. The remaining 54 million adults need some form of academic preparation before they will be ready to succeed in a community college.

The solution to this problem is to expand and improve programs that help adults build English language, literacy, and math skills as well the skills and knowledge needed to gain high school certification. At present, three funding streams support programs that address this need. Each year, about 1.8 million adults participate in programs funded by federal and state governments under Title II (adult and family literacy) of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act. An additional 250,000 adults are served by programs that are funded by private, local, and state dollars and that benefit from the efforts of volunteers. In addition, 60% of community college students are required to take at least one remedial basic skills course (referred to as developmental education), which is funded by student tuition that is often supported by Pell grants and student loans.

The 54 million adults who are not prepared for community college fall into four categories: (1) 37 million adults have a high school credential but have literacy skills that are not adequate for success in community college, (2) 5 million adults do not speak English well enough to take the PIAAC assessment, (3) 1 million adults have strong literacy skills but do not have a high school credential, and (4) 11 million adults have weak literacy skills and lack a high school credential.

Adults in the first group can be served by developmental education courses in community colleges before they begin taking credit bearing courses or, where offered, take courses that integrate basic skills instruction into credit bearing courses. Adults who fall into the other three groups are served by programs funded by Title II or volunteer programs. Increased federal and state funding that makes these three programs more accessible, more effective, more cost-efficient, and free would ensure that more US adults are prepared to succeed in community college.

Improved basic skills are important for reasons other than employment. More than 60% of adults are workers or entrepreneurs, and higher language and literacy skills or a high school credential could open up career opportunities that would result in higher incomes, even for those adults who do not go on to community college. In addition, all adults must manage their health and the health of their families, help their children succeed in school, manage their money, participate in improving their communities, and strive to be well-informed citizens. In the coming decades, all of these personal, family, and civic responsibilities will require stronger literacy skills.

The new President and the new Congress must begin to see the 54 million adults who need help to succeed in community college as a great national resource and make a commitment to develop that resource. This commitment should have four parts.

First, the commitment should ensure that adults who seek to improve their English language, literacy, and math skills or to acquire a high school credential have broad access to free, well-designed, and convenient programs that address their needs.

Second, the commitment should ensure that adults have the supports they need to succeed. These supports include assessment of their skills, individualized plans to address learning needs, help with family responsibilities to free up time for study, counseling to address problems that may be a barrier to learning, and assistance to transition from Title II and volunteer programs to community college programs.

Third, community college students should not have to pay for developmental education classes. For example, Oregon has made great strides toward making all community college courses free, and several national political figures, including President Obama, have argued that all states should follow Oregon’s lead.  

Fourth, though practitioners know a lot about how to serve developmental education, Title II, and volunteer program students, they would be the first to say that they need a larger, targeted research and development effort that focuses on both improving impact and lowering cost. In addition, the infrastructure that trains teachers, evaluates programs, and develops effective policies is weak in comparison to that of the K-12 system. Additional investment in expanding and improving services will be much more productive if research and infrastructure were expanded and improved as well.

The emerging economies of Eastern Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America have less educated populations than does the US, but PIAAC findings suggest that young adults in some of those countries are making more rapid educational progress than their counterparts in the US. Investment now in skills and credentials for adults could ensure that the US workforce remains competitive in the global marketplace. Expanding and improving developmental education, Title II, and volunteer programs will ensure that 54 million adults are not left behind in the next administration’s effort to lower poverty rates and decrease income inequality.

John Comings works at World Education in Boston. He served as a policy adviser in the Obama Administration and was director of the National Center for the Study of Adult Learning and Literacy at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Steve Reder is professor emeritus at Portland State University, serves as a Board member of the National Council for Adult Learning,  and is a member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s expert group on skill use.