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ETS Achievement Gap Symposium Focuses on Adult Learners

WASHINGTON – In an effort to build research and policy support for the adult post-secondary education sector, the Educational Testing Service (ETS) highlighted the critical role adult education plays in preparing the U.S.  workforce and in elevating overall education attainment levels of Americans during the organization’s annual Addressing Achievement Gaps symposium. This year’s symposium was entitled “Advancing Learning for Our Diverse Adult Population.”

“With the right policies, practices, and partnerships we can make a dent in that audacious goal that President Obama set recently,” said Dr. Shirley Robinson Pippins, senior vice president of the American Council on Education, referring to the administration’s goal of the U.S. becoming the nation with the world’s highest rate of college graduates by the year 2020.

In a recent survey of American adult literacy, about half of adults performed below the level needed to navigate today’s complex society, according to statistics from the  Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Increasingly, today’s jobs demand the advanced skills afforded by higher education, but projections show literacy and numeracy levels decreasing, according to symposium speakers.

“Access is necessary but not sufficient; for many, finances are a big problem,” Pippins told more than 200 symposium attendees at the National Press Club in downtown Washington.  “If you aren’t educated, you are less likely to be employed, more likely to get lower wages, and less likely to get financial aid.”

By 2018, Pippins noted, about 63 percent of jobs will require a college degree.  In the economic downturn, hundreds of higher education institutions saw enrollment increases in response to workforce demands for better educated workers.

Connecting the labor market to education has traditionally fallen to community colleges and private for-profit schools, but symposium speakers called for greater commitment from four-year degree-granting institutions and the federal government to increase support of nontraditional students.

Panels focused on examining current programs, analyzing adult learning patterns, and elucidating new approaches to graduating more of these students—particularly those between the ages of 18 and 34 who never received a high school diploma.

Demographically, “nontraditional” students work and attend school part-time while balancing families. Some are single parents, while others are high school dropouts , foreign-born, minorities or economically marginalized, panelists said.

The American Council of Higher Education (ACE) has launched a General Education Diploma (GED) initiative to address proficiency gaps among American adults who on average have lower skills and education. GED courses, ACE reports, have limited space and are outdated using paper and pen. About 778,000 people take the test but only 493,000 receive credentials each year.

Educational programs must be tailored to the specific needs of working adults but have not been in the past, said Dr. Thomas Bailey, of the Community College Research Center and Professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

“At community colleges, adults can acquire the skills and credentials they need for the workforce and new jobs,” Bailey said. “But the traditional associate’s degree doesn’t fit very well for adult students” because many enter with weak academic skills, have less time and incentive to invest in general education courses, have difficulties adjusting to traditional schedules, and state funding policies can work against them since it’s often influenced by the traditional college student model.

“So we need to change how adults get their credentials outside the traditional model,” he said.

Bailey said adult education programs need to be flexible and training-focused and include certificates as well as non-credit instruction.

Dr. Barry Sheckley, the Ray Neag Professor of Adult Learning in the Educational Leadership program at the University of Connecticut, has been learning how adults learn for 30 years, studying how the brain retains information and uses content to develop effective learning experiences for older students.

Adult learning, he said, reaches a plateau once a certain amount of information is grasped. To push past that point, Sheckley said the environment must change to outside-the-classroom activities.

“One way to improve the innovative capacity of our workforce is to develop workers’ ability to transform knowledge for use in solving new problems,” he told symposium attendees.

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