Literacy Volunteers of America-Danbury, Inc.
“Learn to Earn” was the title of a popular book by investment guru Peter Lynch some years ago. In a few pithy words the title summarizes the long-standing American belief that education is the way in which an individual can better his situation, particularly in financial terms. Adults, in particular foreign-born adults of lower-economic status, recognize that, “… 80% of the fastest growing jobs in the United States require at least some post secondary education…” (Hecker in Kraman). With multiple responsibilities, including, for many, full-time jobs and families, these students often turn to public education facilities to complete the high school degree and/or begin work the long journey toward vocational training or a college degree. However, due to a number of factors, the public adult education system holds out the promise of financial rewards through higher education that often proves unattainable to low-income and minority students. This paper will examine some of the structural factors that interfere with their ability to attain that goal.
Certainly this group labors under severe disadvantages. Among the disadvantages of this population language and culture, as well as the lack of early years training head the list. While it is difficult to paint all immigrants with a single, broad brush, it is fair to say that many of them in the public educational system for adults, that is local adult education classes and/or community college classes, are from rather low economic status. These individuals tend to be older, have families and work full-time, while attending classes on a part-time basis (Rao).
For many, the long journey to a better future begins with adult education classes at their local high school. These classes have some distinct advantages from the perspective of the student. First, they are conveniently located, typically in the town in which the student resides. Second, they are offered at night, when the working adult is available. Third, they are usually given free, the expenses of teacher and classroom being paid for by either the state or the municipality. In terms of continued training, however, researchers have come to question the value of those classes (Kraman).
The end-point of that educational experience is the General Education Development (GED) diploma. This high school equivalency program, developed in the 1940’s to help soldiers returning from World War II continue their education, has gone through several mutations in the succeeding years. Originally a measure of academic skills, it was revised in 1988 to emphasize critical thinking skills. It was revised again in 2002 to contain more business and adult-situation types of questions (Khan).
Test detractors claim that it has but little to do with financial success. Certainly, high school graduates do better in earning power $29,200 vs. $22,400 for non graduates (Why Go Beyond the GED?). The high school diploma, by itself, is seen as of very little value to those wishing to pursue postsecondary education. In fact, researcher John Tyler saw evidence that non high school graduates with job skills often made as much or more income as high-scoring GED graduates without skills. As he put it, “Skills really matter” (Why Go Beyond the GED?).
Tyler also suggests that the logical course for potential GED students would be to pass on the GED and go right to vocational training. Unfortunately, in most states, proprietary vocational schools are pressured not to accept non-high school graduates. Public vocational schools either make the GED or some other “aptitude” test part of the admissions process, or include GED-type material in the educational process. In any case, preference on entry into these programs for adults is given to GED holders (Garner).
One of the best, most popular and most convenient sources of vocational training, the community college, also requires the high school diploma for admission. Many states, in fact, offer “open admission,” that is, to say, they accept all high school graduates who hold a valid high school diploma or its equivalent, the GED diploma. The trouble is that many of these GED holders are unqualified to do even beginning college-level work (Rao). This creates the need for community colleges to provide remedial academic work, often years of it, with an increasing likelihood of the student never completing either the two-year or four-year degree with each remedial course required (Adelman).
For those adult students who are able to overcome the remediation trial, the four year educational experience is often less than rewarding. According to one researcher, they often find the experience intimidating. They see themselves as isolated, victims of an uncaring bureaucracy. Furthermore, the remedy may require fundamental changes in the way large institutions operate:
…instructional methods, bureaucratic systems, and faculty
perceptions must metamorphose into more collaborative leadership
and facilitative styles if higher education is to retain efficacy in
the mosaic society of the twenty-first century (Quinnan 37-38).
Research, as well as anecdotal evidence supports the notion that this population has special requirements for academic success. Among these listed in one study, some of the more important appear to be: community connection, personal relationships (with both instructors and fellow students,) cultural sensitivity, and financial as well as psychological support. While that study concerned itself with basic literacy, the inference, at least, is that some of those findings could be applied to higher-level study as well (Terry 30-43). The focus on relationships contributing to learner results is also supported by the work of Timmothy Quinnan, who suggests the importance of the student and teacher establishing “a learning dialogue” which would empower the student, creating conditions under which the student “…assumes responsibility for his own learning” and reduces the sense of alienation to the learning institution, through a sense of control (38). Effecting that relationship may require extraordinary effort on the part of the instructor, however, often crossing ethnic, psychological and cultural lines. As one teacher put it, “We butt into their lives as much as they’ll let us” (Trombley). Not every teacher is equally comfortable in such a role, however.
Adult advocacy organizations such as the Council for Advancement of Adult Education (CAAL) have called for community colleges to take on this role. (Spangenberg, McClenney and Chisman 38), and a few community colleges have been experimenting with this approach. Other communities have experimented with a more cooperative community college/GED instructional effort (Alamprese). Researchers Laanan and Cox have suggested that increased federal funding to the community colleges would allow them to expand their educational roles to include a kind of family literacy which would lead to greater efficacy, including higher-level study (370).
The sheer size and mission diversity of many community colleges may mitigate against their ability to fully succeed in this role. As researchers Brian Fabes and Richard H. Mattoon have pointed out, community colleges typically have a mission that tries to serve a wide variety of constituents, with a large number of divergent programs. These range from liberal arts transfer course to vocational programs to factory worker training programs to enrichment courses for average citizens and special programs for senior citizens. They suggest that such divergence may negatively impact on the ability of community colleges to effectively perform the remediation function for the adult minority student segment (1-4).
For those adult students who succeed in navigating the community college, transition to a four-year institution may present additional problems of isolation and alienation. For minority students these problems are often based on cultural differences (Quinnan 36-38). Researchers Gardella, Candales and Ricardo-Rivera, describing a “transition” program, suggest breaking down cultural barriers by establishing a kind of cross-cultural program with the four-year institution, as well as the use of successful minority, volunteer (in this case Hispanic) college graduates who may provide an effective way to help this population make the transition to higher level study (39-51).
Cost may prohibit such coordination, however—cost to the student as well as the taxpayer. Pressure on politicians from concerned taxpayers has already all but eliminated remediation from many public four-year colleges, leaving the remediation burden on community colleges. Neither can this adult student population afford the consequence of extended remediation: as writer Deepa Ra has pointed out, federal funding for these students (the Pell Grant) is of limited amount, and conditioned on the premise that the student is making “adequate progress toward the degree.” It is not intended for the multiple layers of remediation required by many of these students. Nor are all students ready, “…even for remedial-level work.” While she quite correctly contends that community colleges should re-examine their “open-door policy” toward high school graduates, she offers no alternative, and ignores the fact that many states currently mandate that policy (1-6).
Thus, the educational institutions, as well as the students are caught in a bind which is not of their own making. Currently there are over 750,000 adult students attempting to achieve the GED diploma (Garner). Many of them will proceed to community colleges, which currently host one out of every two college students. The United States will spend $1.4 Billion in attempting to bring the academic skills of this population up to college-level, yet fewer than 5% of those entering community college will actually graduate. For those few, the system will have proven successful. For the remaining 95%, the attempt to “earn by learning” will only prove frustrating (Kraman).
Although proposed solutions for this population are varied, some themes seem to have emerged. “Transition” programs, those aimed at students who wish to continue beyond the high school level, should be small, intimate, culturally sensitive, community-based and very supportive (Gardella, Candales and Ricardo-Rivera 39-51). They would need to be inexpensive, but of high academic quality, as defined by the admission standards of the local two and four-year colleges. (Rao 1-6) Class schedules would need to be flexible. They would need to have low student/teacher ratios in order to promote the necessary dialogue and subsequent student development (Gardella, Candales and Ricardo-Rivera 39-51). Such requirements seem to call for a radically different approach to the problem, which may best be handled by a new breed of not-for-profit organizations which consider themselves to be “social entrepreneurs.” In cooperation with both the public adult education providers and the colleges, such organizations may be well-suited to bridge the cultural, psychological and academic gap between the GED diploma and the requirements of higher education for this population. In doing so, it would help to fill the void of the hollow promise.
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