Perhaps because so much adult education takes place outside the boundaries of formal educational institutions, sociologists have devoted less scholarly attention to adult education than they have to most other kinds of schooling. There is little agreement on the boundaries of adult education and no clear consensus on a definition that specifies what is included and excluded. Even the terminology pertaining to adult education is inconsistent and shifting, as the range of terms used to refer to this broad and diverse category of education has included continuing, adult, further, recurrent, popular, second chance, educational extension, and lifelong learning (Kett 1994). One could add even more recent additions to this list of terms.
But while any definition of adult education is inevitably somewhat arbitrary, a few common features emerge. Perhaps the salient feature of adult education is that it is noncompulsory or voluntary. Adult education typically involves educational reentry after one has left formal schooling to pursue work or family activities. It does not traditionally include full time enrollment in postsecondary degree or diploma programs although it often includes part time enrollment in such programs (Kim et al. 2004: v). Some analysts consider vocational education, worker training, and other clear forms of ‘‘human capital investment’’ as components of adult education, while others prefer to focus on education for leisure, self-improvement, and personal development. Kett (1994) argued that adult education has more to do with its function of providing additional learning for those who have left the educational system than it does with age.
There is nothing in the United States that could be characterized as an ‘‘adult education system.’’ The vast panorama of adult education programs and offerings in the US is an utterly non coordinated and decentralized ‘‘non system,’’ ranging in quality from atrocious to excellent and in cost from free to prohibitive for most would be participants. The many professional associations and accreditation agencies with an interest in adult education are at best loosely confederated and organized.
Because of the diversity of adult education, definitional uncertainties about its boundaries, and the lack of any national database on adult education, it is impossible to offer any definitive statistical portrait of its distribution. Still, a few kinds of adult education are especially prevalent. One of the most common is a huge infrastructure of providers of instruction to prepare high school non completers to take the General Educational Development, or GED, examination. The GED has been used for decades in the US to signify the equivalence of a high school degree. In the year 2000, about 860,000 people took the GED exam, with about 60 percent successfully passing it.
While statistics are less reliable, even larger numbers of people have participated in various kinds of adult literacy programs. These vary greatly in length, intensity, and pedagogical sophistication. Adult literacy programs are deeply rooted in American history, resurging particularly during waves of heavy immigration. While often presented as a means to alleviate educational and economic inequality, their actual impact on this, despite their other virtues, has been modest (Raudenbush & Kasim 1998).
A great deal of adult education is offered in response to the demand for instruction in avocational interests, hobbies, and personal growth. Unlike most compulsory education, much adult education is better characterized as consumption than as investment. That is, the goals of K 12 schooling are routinely stated in terms of the development of desired changes in young people’s repertoires, preparing them to effectively assume adult roles as citizens, workers, and community members. In contrast, a large share of adult education is ‘‘consumed’’ for its own sake, for the personal satisfaction and edification that it offers. Sociological models of adult education that adopt the economic perspective of ‘‘education as investment’’ are often of limited value in explaining people’s decisions to invest time and money in adult education from which they expect no economic returns.
Individuals pursue adult education from a wide variety of providers. Many providers are located in traditional educational institutions, from K 12 settings to community colleges to four year colleges and universities. Other adult learning is situated in community organizations, business and industry, church groups, and libraries. Increasingly, vendors are providing adult education through various distance learning technologies, notably the World Wide Web and other asynchronous forms of instructional delivery.
Sociologists have had limited engagement with the mainstream adult education field and rarely draw on even the recognized classics of the adult education literature. Much of the adult education literature is quite normative, being rooted more in social movements of self-improvement than in a systematic understanding of the sociology of adult education. Statistically and methodologically sound analyses and evaluations of virtually any aspect of adult education – participation, effectiveness, outcomes – are extremely rare.
The uncertainty about definitional boundaries creates a host of measurement and other methodological problems in the study of adult education. Even the inclusive definition offered by the National Center for Education Statistics (see Kim et al. 2004) is restricted to adult education activities in which an instructor is present. A wide variety of self-paced, non-certified, non-formal learning activities that would clearly fall into any accepted categorization of learning (e.g., reading professional journals in one’s field, or watching the History Channel) are often systematically excluded from consideration.
Adult education is a critical part of one of the most enduring social movements in American history, that of self-betterment. Since the earliest days of the republic, adult Americans have pursued educational opportunities through such diverse venues as Chautauqua institutes, voluntary associations, libraries, reading groups, correspondence study, elder hostels, and church organizations (Kett 1994). The pursuit of adult education figures prominently in the American myth of the ‘‘self-made man.’’
More recently, such impulses toward self-improvement have given way to a more economically motivated agenda of ‘‘Lifelong Learning’’ or ‘‘the Learning Society.’’ The rhetoric of Lifelong Learning is not as deeply institutionalized in the US as in many other postindustrial nations, some of which have elevated the model of the Learning Society to the top of the economic development agenda. Advocates of the Learning Society believe that globalization and rapid technological change are increasingly rendering one’s current stock of education obsolete. They add that policies to promote ongoing learning throughout the life course are needed to compete in the global marketplace. Even in the United States with its traditions of adult education for self-betterment, most proposals to reform adult education eventually appeal to economic logic. Despite the cautions of many observers that the provision of skills is not sufficient in itself to meet the demands of changing markets (Crouch 1997), the engine driving adult education is changing quite inexorably from self-improvement to social mobility.
There is no single data series that can document trends in adult education over more than a few years. Under any definition, however, participation in adult education has grown substantially over the past 30 years. Using the rather expansive definition adopted by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), in 2001 about 46 percent of American adults (about 92 million people) participated in some form of adult education. This was up from 40 percent in 1995. The most common form of adult education was work related, but personal development education was also very popular. In fact, fee based personal development education attracts more students to many community colleges than does tuition based coursework in degree programs. Less common but still very significant forms of adult education were English as a Second Language (ESL), basic skills education, vocational and technical degree programs, and apprenticeships.
Collectively, adult education adds a great deal to the nation’s overall stock of formal schooling. Jacobs and Stoner Eby (1998) estimated that about 7 percent of the total educational attainment of recent American cohorts is the result of reentry education.
Individuals have very different opportunities to participate in adult education. For the most part, access to adult education is influenced by many of the same factors that influence access to other valued educational and socioeconomic outcomes. Whites participate at higher rates than African Americans and Hispanics. Women participate at higher rates than do men, and have done so at least since the late 1970s. There is evidence, however, that the sorts of job training in which women participate tend to yield lower economic returns than the job training provided to men. There is little variation in participation rates for adults aged 16–50 (about 54 percent), but rates of participation in adult education drop sharply for those aged 51–65 (41 percent) and over age 65 (22 percent). More highly educated individuals are far more likely to participate in adult education than are those with less schooling (a finding that holds in many nations). Those in more privileged occupational and employment positions have greater likelihoods of participating in adult education than do those in less advantaged work situations, and those with higher household incomes are similarly advantaged (Kim et al. 2004).
Because much adult education is not based in formal school settings, the decision to pursue adult education is not strictly the same as the decision to return to school. Particularly for women, the ability to return to school hinges on a variety of marital and family factors, such as responsibilities for childcare and the amount of emotional and financial support received from one’s partner. Most often, analysts focus on the ‘‘barriers’’ that stand between people and their ability to participate in adult education. There is as yet no widely accepted conceptual framework for understanding these barriers.
The growth in adult education is closely related to some important long term demographic trends. Foremost among these is the increasingly ‘‘disorderly’’ life course lived by many Americans. By ‘‘disorderly,’’ demographers direct attention to the dissolution of the normative life course of linear and predictable sequences from one social role to another and its replacement with a life course regime in which people hold educational, employment, and family roles out of their traditional sequence and in many cases simultaneously. Thus, individuals are increasingly likely to structure their lives in ways that facilitate occasional or even frequent episodes of educational reentry.
Moreover, the aging of the population, in particular those born during the 1946–64 baby boom in the United States, is resulting in a large ‘‘supply side’’ of potential participants in the adult education market. There are many more people in the typical ‘‘adult education’’ ages than ever before. Even though baby boomers evidently do not return to school at higher rates than earlier cohorts did, their sheer numbers have put enormous upward pressure on adult education. On the demand side, many American colleges and universities, to say nothing of community colleges, have expanded their adult education course offerings while redoubling their efforts to make education accessible to adults with work and family commitments. The adult education market is particularly open to adult education aspirants because of the relatively easy access to virtually any form of adult education in the US. Of course, as baby boomers are coming to be replaced by the much smaller 1965–82 birth cohort of ‘‘baby busters,’’ the supply of potential adult learners available to colleges and universities will shrink quite precipitously. As Jacobs and Stoner Eby (1998) observed, in the near future the college population of the US will return to its traditional demographic composition of young adults.
- Crouch, C. (1997) Skills-Based Full Employment: The Latest Philosopher’s British Journal of Industrial Relations 35: 367-91.
- Jacobs, A. & Stoner-Eby, S. (1998) Adult Enrollment and Educational Attainment. Annals, AAPSS 559 (September): 91-108.
- Kett, J. (1994) The Pursuit of Knowledge Under Difficulties: From Self Improvement to Adult Education in America, 1750-1990. Stanford University Press, Stanford.
- Kim, , Hagedorn, M., Williamson, J., & Chapman, C. (2004) Participation in Adult Education and Lifelong Learning: 2000-01. NCES 2004 050. US Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. US Government Printing Office, Washington, DC.
- Raudenbush, W. & Kasim, R. (1998) Adult Literacy and Economic Inequality: Findings from the National Adult Literacy Survey. Harvard Educational Review 68: 33-79.