Adult Education in the United States


The purpose of this letter is to address the need for effective adult education and training. For a long time, teaching models have been designed for children. Currently, enormous research has been conducted to identify effective ways to teach adults. In this light, this paper will define the adult learner, indicate the evolution of adult education, and assess the government’s effort to educate adults. This paper will use the case of the United States to address the increasing desires and demands of adult education in contemporary times.


Adult learners are characterized by maturity, self-control, the ability to make decisions on their own, experience, and the capacity to take different roles simultaneously. These characteristics influence their capability to learn and understand fast. According to Pilz (2012), adults learn faster when they actively participate in determining the learning process. Adult learners in most cases find it easy to train when they are given the chance to choose what they want to learn. Today, adult education has been availed via government and non-governmental programs. Adult education targets to reach adult students, promote their livelihood through training, and help them adapt to the changing social environment.

History of adult education

For many centuries, education was available for adult learners; learning resources were streamlined to childhood education only. However, adult education evolved through various stages as discussed below. In the 1700s, religious instructions and social engagements emerged and marked the main forms of education involving adults. Later in 1731, Benjamin Franklin introduced a library and a club referred to as the Junto, which provided members with study materials and discussion on intellectual matters (Knowles, 1977). Even though unknowingly, this concentration on discussion and reading enabled this program to play a great role in the commencement of adult education.

The 1800s marked an enormous increase in written publications in art and literacy. Reading among adults increased with an increase in publications. During this time, many voluntary associations advocating education and training for adults emerged such as the American Library Association. In 1860, the US government formed the Adult Education and Literacy system to promote adult literacy and training. During the 1990s following the increase in organizational competition, many companies make adult learning a priority to improve skills. In early 2000, many states in the US introduced the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) Program. The program targets to teach adults what they need to adjust career skills so they can be more productive and relevant in the job market (Hughes & Schwab, 2010). Currently, the US government has introduced high school equivalency exams for adults.

Changing demographics

Currently, in the U.S adult learners above the age of 24 years are among the 44% of the postsecondary learners (Pilz, 2012). This increase in adult enrollment to postsecondary education is influenced by the transformation of the world economy since it requires highly educated employees. Unlike the past, job categories with the rapid predicted burst require a highly trained workforce, while those with expected decline may need only the organizational training. Since the U.S seeks to avoid the risk of being dragged economically by an adult workforce, which lacks the skills to manage the demands of the modern economy, adult education has become a priority.

Statistics indicate that approximately 60 % of the U.S adult population lacked postsecondary education qualifications in the last decade (McLean, 2011). The study predicts that demographic changes will increase the gap between worker qualifications and jobs requirements. This disparity is expected to cause a shortage of about 9 million qualified employees by 2016 if adult education is not considered keenly.

Government involvement

The government through the Ministry of higher education must address how to update the skills of the majority workforce because the economy cannot rely only on the newly graduating postsecondary students. Willing adult learners are many and possess a tremendous potential to expand the economy, but they are unable to access education. The adult learner market is bulging every day creating millions of adults who are willing but unable to join due to limited learning resources. Consequently, adult learners find it difficult to seek post-secondary credentials. The government still gives more focus on traditional childhood education despite the forecasted gap in the modern workplace.

The higher education system should focus on improving access to adult learning programs concerning the job market demands and for self-development. Accessibility to adult education is still a challenge given that the structure of the traditional education system disadvantages employed adults. The government should focus on increasing more adult-learner-oriented and flexible programs. The government should also consider subsidizing the financial burden for adult learners to encourage both working and non-working adults to attend learning sessions.

Principles of adult education

To ensure effective adult learning, the education system has to understand how adults like to learn. As opposed to children, adults present unique needs and considerations as learners. To comprehend adults as learners, the following principles have to be considered; adults are self-controlled, they have targets, independent, practical, and result-oriented. Additionally, adult learners are less open-minded. Adulthood and life experiences often increase resistance to change. Thus, it is the work of the facilitator to indicate the learning opportunities.

Adult learners need the freedom to plan and direct themselves. Their instructors must actively involve adult learners in the entire learning process and only act as facilitators. Adult learners should be left to work on projects that reflect their goals. Adult learners need to connect their life experiences with the learning process for it to make a meaningful contribution to their lives. Adult education must be relevant to the development of long-term goals. There has to be a reason for learning something new or adding knowledge. Therefore, learning must reflect aspects useful to them in their careers or other responsibilities of value to them. Additionally, adult learning should be motivating in nature. In most cases, learning in adulthood is voluntary but very fundamental for economic sustainability. Thus, the government should also include recreational events alongside learning sessions to provoke thoughts that surpass conventional wisdom (Pilz, 2012).


Adult education is relatively a new field making it a challenge to meet the educational needs of the million adult learners in the US. However, it is just as important as the traditional childhood system and has significant potential for socio-economic success. Adult learners have high expectations to attain both personal and organizational goals through education. Unfortunately, there are problems with their learning including accessibility, affordability, and flexibility. If the government acts swiftly to unlock these barriers, adult learners will prosper and the rewards will be long-term.


Hughes, N., & Schwab, I. (2010). Teaching adult literacy: Principles and practice. Maidenhead, UK: Open University Press.

Knowles, M. S. (1977). A history of the adult education movement in the United States: Includes adult education institutions through 1976. Huntington, NY: R.E. Krieger Pub. Co.

McLean, S. (2011). Education for Freedom? “Living Room Learning” and the Liberal Arts of Government. Adult Education Quarterly, 62(2), 159-179.

Pilz, M. (2012). The future of vocational education and training in a changing world. New York, NY: Springer.

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