Should the United States have Mandatory Adult Education?


According to a Washington Post article today, the question of making adult education mandatory is being seriously debated in the Nordic countries (Denmark, Sweden, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Greenland, and the Aaland and Faroe islands).

From the article: "...Americans would do well to embrace the idea on a broad level, said Paul Irving, chairman of the Milken Institute Center for the Future of Aging and a professor at the University of Southern California-Davis School of Gerontology. 'We have college savings accounts to encourage young people and we have a culture that celebrates learning for young people, and I think that kind of culture makes sense throughout life,' he said, adding that along with making people more productive, continuing education helps them remain more engaged with the broader world and therefore healthier."

What do you think about this idea?

David J. Rosen, Moderator

Program Management CoP


Ohhhh, My, David. You bring up a significant question that strikes a deep chord within me. In my ideal world, nothing would be mandatory. Nada! I don't believe that any education should be mandatory. Do others here think differently?

Yes, of course, if Adult Ed were mandatory, there might be funding available to sustain all of the programs that are struggling mightily to exist in order to serve adults who struggle mightily to resist! Without addressing funding,  I like carrot on a stick far more than the whip to get the cart moving. Am I alone? Leecy

The lack of individualization in education is a major reason old and young learners do not value education as much. If those that value life long learning value it so much and feel others should "get it", some data from those that do not value education so much is vital to consider. I suspect that many not valuing education would point to boring lectures, teacher centered focus, lack of practical application and a general feeling that the teacher does not know who the individual is all as reasons why education is not important or possible in their lives. Looking at the diversity of learning styles and different intelligence variations, it is not hard to see how our current education models hit a very small portion of the population's learning and thinking strengths. We can all say that being educated is important in that it opens more options and allows someone more ways to react in a changing world. Unless we can provide an education that better fits all the many individuals that currently don't find value in education, no amount of mandating, bribing or cajoling people will create lasting changes we all wish could happen.  

I love the idea presented in the article that adult education becomes more available for free to all. Again, if we value learning so much as a society, it should be provided to all. I guess you can tell I am still bummed that Bernie is not allowed to run this year Image removed. 

I have had the pleasure of helping many seniors get in touch with relatives that are all far away and digitally connected. I am working with man in his late 50s who has never known how to read. His world is opening more every month in ways he has never experienced in over half a century and adult education is making that happen for him. Things are always changing. Some of those changes may not be "as good as the old days", but a failure to be able to navigate those changes creates a discarded segment of our population and that is a crime and shame. 

Removing barriers to getting an adult education can have a profound effect on the lives of people currently undeserved. Perhaps adult education can come to nursing homes, maybe local transportation services can be supported so that travel to the adult ed program is not such a barrier to those that can't drive any more due to finances or physical issues. There can be some creative solutions, if learning and education really matters in our country. . 

I think Ed's, "Why mandatory?" is the right question.  For kids, they are not mature enough to make responsible decisions, so we decide for them.  They have to go to school.  Treating adults that way is a great way to waste a lot of time and money.  My experience with adult learners mandated to do education either as a condition of parole or in order to receive government aid has been incredibly disappointing. 

Now availability is a whole different question.  As Ed pointed out, making classes available, "If we offer it, they will come!", is a very different thing from actually making learning truly available to those who need it.  Childcare and transportation issues alone are mountains most potential learners can't climb without assistance. 

In my area, Lake County, IL, the last stats I have about those served versus the need was that in Fiscal Year 2014 less than 6% of those in need of ABE or ASE instruction received services and less that 2% in need of ESL instruction received services.  Illinois has been on a budget madness roller coaster for the last two fiscal years so these numbers are only worse now.  Many programs are in real trouble again as stop-gap funding is set to run out at calendar year end.  For Lake County, I would love to just have the capacity to enroll and served the 20% most motivated and ready to learn of the adults who need ESL, ABE or ASE.

Josh and others, as I reflect on the idea of getting learners to educational opportunities, I get this nagging thought that keeps coming back to me. Way back in the early 1900's it was very difficult for anyone to get around and communities were much closer and self sufficient. Even with the closeness, there were massive difficulties in getting people to libraries to promote literacy. The most cost effective and efficient solution way back then was to hook up a donkey to a cart and bring the books to the people. Thus the Donkey Library set the stage as one of the first Bookmobiles. 

I imagine a small bus or even a large bus gutted out and equipped with technology and wifi going to communities and to places that are within walking distance to as many people as practical. Get this bus, lets call it the Opportunity Bus, on a set schedule of neighborhoods and there may be quite a few gains in reaching those most in need but with the more challenges. Even if things go really poorly in a neighborhood, one simply needs to change the route to hit another location to see if interest is higher there. My thinking goes like this: As technology continues to become more and more part of each family and access to Internet is increasingly being seen as "vital" to many in society, there will be advances even out at the end of the roads where I spend much time. This implies that people will eventually have access to both technology and Internet within their community at the least. I would hope that is within the next 5-10 years for most communities not being serviced. If/when that happens, there are a large number of adults that will need to be comfortable with the skills needed to use these tools effectively for their life goals. Making a portable Opportunity Bus lab can offer so many services that brick and mortar institutions can not while society slowly moves to more universal access to the online world. 

I realize that there is the cost of the vehicle, the technology, heating for this Opportunity Bus, but my personal experience in building vehicles like this (I have helped my parents strip and build up 2 different busses to create luxurious travel homes for their excursions) has me believing that the cost can not come close to the daily operational costs in many of our program spaces. 

Can people help me by playing devils advocate? I want to know what I am missing with this idea. What are your thoughts? Should we get a group together to draft what the Opportunity bus would look like and how it would be laid out so the field could discuss this with more details? Maybe then we could get to a real price list to see the economics realities to compare conventional means with a more portable form of education? 

Ed et al, I would not argue, in fact, I support all that is being proposed and shared here. In terms of individualization, Ed, I like to call the effort to reach most learners as differentiation since so many teachers think that individualization means writing a lesson plan for each individual and, therefore, resist the idea.(Too much work!) Differentiation introduced a new term to describe the same idea, but it is more palatable in that it implies using different ways to present materials to everyone in order to address the needs, learning preferences, and abilities of most students.

Re the Opportunity Bus concept, I won't play the devil's advocate since, overall, the Bus would provide great access to technology. In fact, the ideas is being used in some African villages. So here is an oft neglected aspect regarding access: technology is a tool that must be very cleverly used by well-trained professionals in order to be effective. We all have stories of classrooms that are packed with computer boxes that have never been opened, or distance ed equipment that is never used/maintained, or inadequately used if maintained.

I always claim that I can teach anything using a show label as my text, but I much prefer teaching with options, especially digital options. Any grant that requests funding for an Opportunity Bus should definitely include a hefty budget to train pros to offer services AND to train potential, onsite instructors during visits to continue to apply the concepts that students acquire between Bus visits. What think? Leecy


Ed, I'll happily play devil's advocate on the Opportunity Bus idea.  It's a good idea so I can't really criticize it directly.  I can say that I think we can achieve what it would achieve with less effort.  Simply put, with the right community engagement we should be able to get access to better resources for free or low cost.  Many churches want to help their communities and sit empty during large swaths of the week.  If you can help parents be better prepared to support their kids, every school teacher will jump to lobby their principal to let you use school space for adult education, especially ESL.  Your local library is a likely partner.  (I know you've taken advantage of that with your games group.)  In short, people still have to travel a ways to congregate at the bus.  You don't build a bus to do house calls at every house.  So, we can just partner with the organizations that have the space and the motivation to be the real local community centers.  In extreme rural settings this might not work as well, but a bus won't work very well either if people are too spread out.  To outdo the bus idea, you just need a local organization willing to share/rent wif-fi enabled space for meeting and share/rent secure storage of your portable tech.  Laptops, tablets, smartphones.  The number of adult learners with smartphones is exploding.   No physical resource library, but a well-organized library of online resources and apps.  The huge side-benefit of this sort of effort is that you now have a community ally and natural partner in recruitment, awareness-raising, etc.

Josh, thank you for offering your thoughts on this topic! I would agree that there are often existing resources that are under utilized in many communities that may allow for a spreading of adult education resources. As you listed some of the locations I had a negative Nelly chirping in my head for each one. Many churches do have a good chunk of vacancy, but this is in part because many in the population avoid churches today especially if there are multiple churches in a close area trying to keep their numbers up. Schools often have some rooms and even some buildings open, but there are stigmas for many adults in returning to buildings that were associated with a lack of academic success in their past. Just ask teachers in day school how many of their parents show up and what reasons those not attending had for not being there. Number one reason is usually that the parent had to work or had some other life responsibility and number two is often related to a discomfort with the place, talking to teachers, or feeling judged in a negative way. Even the community center idea at first hit me as a great big "Yes!" until I realized that ALL of the local community centers that are still operational charge everyone to use the building (even the Boy and Girl Scouts!). The fees may not seem big for big organizations, but for adult ed programs that are running on 2-3 staff members, all the pennies count. So, I have some concerns about how accessible spaces really are in the small communities I work in. Libraries can be great, but out of the 17 libraries (in 200 miles) in my area, there are only about half of those that are willing or able to help with education. Many of those not able don't have space (tiny buildings) or only have a part time staff of one person that can only be present 2-3 days of the week. There are other libraries that struggle with choices made by the library boards in that there is a fear in some libraries that if one organization sets up shop in a library then all of the organizations in the area will start expecting part of the library's limited resources or space. to be available to them. A set space, close to people, with cheap/free access, with cheap expenses (most of the non used buildings have huge utility costs) are difficult to find in the regions I have been working in. I suspect that more populated centers would have much more available and your suggestions could be more effective in those communities, but I still would want to run concrete numbers to see if the annual operating expenses would really be cheaper than maintaining/running a Bus environment. It would be a great study :) 

I love the concept of sharing wifi space and in fact I am a HUGE supporter that wifi access to the Internet should be a right and provided to all citizens as part of the local, state, and or federal tax base. Perhaps another discussion for another time, but I think many reading this know the power of having 24/7 access to reliable Internet and how a lack of that access creates many inequities.

I can only share my personal experiences and I hope others will share theirs. In my region, I work in a 200 mile range, almost all of the businesses in that range offer free wifi for the public to use. When you start counting how many businesses have that wifi to share and then look at the demographics of the area, that previous statement does not sounds as positive. Poverty is quite extreme in this area which is sad because the one mile area directly along the coast line is filled with part time resident, multimillion dollar mansions owned by the rich and famous. Two miles in from the coast, the tar paper shacks and dishevelled hovels start in where the full time residents try to eek out a living. For those in poverty, going ten miles to meet up with an educator at place of business would introduce so many negative anxieties or concerns from the person. "I don't belong here" "I've never been in one of 'those' stores" "Look at all that food others have available to them (as their tummy rumbles)..."  

In contrast, the Bus is designed for all individuals. When that bus pulls into your neighborhood, it can adopt the attitudes, feel, and resources relevant to the citizens there. Simply having more ESL resources available for this community and having different physical resources ready for this community that has many elderly that lack mobility, and many other accommodations can be customized as the Bus goes from place to place. There is the cost discussion and I would love to run real numbers to compare conventional costs to Bus costs. I understand why costs are such a focal point in such a discussion, but I propose that our natural tendency to focus on "how does that get funded" distracts us from the actual needs of those learners that currently are not being served and are most in need. I remind everyone that we have "normal" funding programs in place and have had for some time and yet we still have data that shows an increasing portion of our populations that can not utilized our services. This screams to me that we have to approach the problem differently with different ideas. We may have to look to our past colonial days in which an impoverished, wide spread community needed to provide services with very little resources and support for outside the community. Possibly there are ideas from our history we can grab and improve on, like the Bookmobile ideas. If we rely on "the way things are" in terms of funding structure and support for adult education, we will continue to "miss" a significant portion of our populations that are most in need. 

Josh, yes we need to maximize the local resources available and continue to build partnerships while keeping in mind that many of our partners are struggling to survive as well in the challenging situations we are in. I contend that our current efforts in adult education are noble and probably more positive than many give credit to given the challenges we face. Still, we all know there are those we wish to serve that are currently not able to partake of our offerings. Although it may be marketing in some small ways, I feel we may benefit from discussing some out of the box ideas to help bring education to people in conjunction with our ongoing efforts to bring people to our educational centers. Are there other ideas people have about how we might bring adult education to people where the people are? Don't focus, at first on money and funding because great ideas often have a way of working out over time. We just need to start sharing those great ideas with each other to develop them more into potential actions.

So, who wants to build a bus with me?  

Ed, the idea of a true neighborhood adult education center is the underlying idea here I think.  People can walk to their learning site and it is tailored to the needs of folks in the neighborhood.  They feel comfortable and welcome.  That might be a bus, a library, a local elementary school, a community center or a church depending on your community.  It sounds like you should build a bus!

The other huge "education to people" idea is free online resources/apps.  To my mind DuoLingo is the fullest realization of this, especially as they now offer the classroom feature which allows groups to self-organize in using the app.

Josh, I agree that there is a huge potential of creating digital learning communities for adult learners. Besides the obvious challenge that not all of our adults have access to the digital realm (yet) I can see challenges with the many organizations out there working together. So many organizations and so many online tools all aim to offer positive experiences for learners and yet there is often a feeling that too many cooks just clog up a kitchen and prevent some real cooking from going on. I feel that current funding practices prohibit true collaboration in our field and that is sad and frustrating. 

As for the Bus, it would be interesting to hear from everyone what the Bus should have in it. I would ask you to really think about every suggestion and put your ideas into three categories:

1. Must Have Essentials: these are items or systems that must be in place for the project to have even remote chances of success. Note that we are thinking cheapest operation of getting the ball rolling. For more elaborate wishes, please put them under item 3 below. Although buses will vary by community they are designed for, all buses around the country should have items or systems from this list


2. Good to Have: these are items that would be nice to have for specific reasons and could be added in without too much fuss for space or funding. It would be nice if you include your justifications for each item here. These items might allow for flexibility on the road but are not part of the core bus requirements. Think of this category as "nice to have if we have room and money to include it in the bus"

3. Dream Bus: Assume money is no object, what should the dream bus have in it. Obviously we may not include a Jacuzzi for stress relief, but if you really wish to dream that big I will not be the one to stomp on your dreams. It may be more productive if these items were things a major funder would be able to see the value of including.

Alternatively, if you just wish to make a list of things for the bus, you don't have to categorize them. 

For those of you with a gmail account, you may put your thoughts on this shared document (each page is one of the numbered items) and I will share that input here when we have results. 

How timely and relevant your question is David! As an adult learner myself, I have come to know the value of a 'Never stop learning' attitude.  It wasn't by choice really, but by necessity that I continued on with my education and learned new skill sets and how to work with newer technology.  As a 'Boomer', and as a woman, I've had to reinvent myself four times over my adult career.  From learning about best business practices in high school, to being licensed in the field of Cosmetology after graduation, then obtaining a Bachelor's degree in Business and moving to the technology boom and bust, and finally-a Master’s degree within the field of ESL, Adult Education and Instructional Design. I had no choice really, since I had family responsibilities and obligations to deal with during the 70’s and 80’s. Each life-cycle segment brought me into a totally different work environment. Recently I have been thinking about exploring a doctorate degree, however I have not yet settled on a particular topic. I have become very interested in women's philosophy, brain level development and degeneration.

There are two reasons I favor mandatory adult learning.  One reason is because of the influx of immigrants entering our country.  They come for opportunity and to escape power struggles in their own countries. America is the ‘go-to’ country of choice because we are free and there is opportunity.  That means we have children and adults who are in need of critical knowledge.  Children are automatically enrolled in a local school district and they become productive in a very short period of time.  Their parents, however, are usually isolated from mingling with their neighbors and have very little opportunity to learn. For this reason, we might implement a mandatory program of study to ensure that the adults who enter our country get all the training they need in order to achieve gainful employment. (This would go far in helping our country come to agreement on immigration issues and dependence on public assistance.)

During this last year, I have seen many males who've had the comfort of long careers in their field, try to come to terms with layoffs and plant closures.  Most believe that it is because our jobs have been shifted to other countries, when in reality the demand for their product or service has decreased over time - they just didn't realize it since they were comfortable and had stable incomes.  (Of course, Boomer women adjusted to the changing world at a much faster pace, because of having compartmentalized life styles and shorter work spans over time.) An example of the effects of job loss on American men is evident day after day in the media, and as the presidential campaign draws to a close we see those men who are just coming to terms with their reality. Men who have worked long-term in factories, steel mills, oil and gas industries have seen a shift in the demand of many of those products, are frustrated and angry. However, we have not abandoned our past, but rather are embracing the future.  Instead of producing the older products, like before, technology has allowed us to embrace better, faster and more efficient ways of manufacturing and producing. If we applied the mandatory adult education requirement, those who have lost jobs in declining industries they would have the opportunity to learn a new skill or move on to advanced position within an industry. A great example of this change/adaptation is the solar power industry.  We still need the outcomes received from the old resources, but we’ve changed the products we use and how deliver them. That requires a skill set and mandatory learning.

We’ve got to consider moving forward with the changes in our world because we no longer have the ability to slow down at age 62 or 65.  Life requires us to be able bodied, and productive for at least another 20 years. And that requires life-long education.


Mandatory or not, (and I agree with Leecy that we should not mandate an adults' education level). But one thing we might be overlooking in this conversation is that learning takes time, time many adults don't have. In a world where income inequity is becoming broader, many people are spending time simply trying to survive. Some might argue that Americans work the longest hours in the Western world and have difficulty with the work / life balance. People have multiple jobs, or additional responsiblities outside of a work schedule. For families living in poverty, free time is a luxury many don't have. I do not dispute the value of continuing education- both for the individual and also for society as a whole. But more than making continuing education mandatory, it needs to be accessible (in cost and in time) in order to engage adults.


Kathy, you make a good point that for many adults living in poverty, some of whom may be working two or three minimum-wage jobs just so their families can survive, there is no time in their lives for education. Across the country you will find them working in food service, hotel and hospitality and health care industries, among others. In the past two years, several corporations, perhaps because of the high cost of employee turnover in these low-paying jobs now -- unemployment as of today is down to 4;9% --  have looked at employee basic skills education as a way to increase employee loyalty and skills. Some large corporations are providing free English language and high school diploma programs; at least two that I am aware of provide free ESOL/ESL programs entirely on paid work time. To be fair, there are a few companies that, regardless of the economy, have been providing worker learning programs fully on paid work time, for some time. In some states, my own included, these good intentions have been supported by organized labor negotiated contracts. Organized labor has also been at the forefront in increasing state funding for workplace basic skills programs in my state, however, this is not necessarily true in other states. So far support for workplace basic skills on paid work time hasn't been a large-scale effort, but if these programs are effective -- and I believe that some of them are -- it could be scaled up. These programs often cannot provide the kind of comprehensive adult basic skills programs that publicly funded community-based  (broadly fined, including but not limited to CBO) programs provide, but often they offer low-skilled, living in-poverty, working adults an opportunity to acquire work-related English language skills, and in some case to advance out of poverty to family-sustaining salaries.

I might add that while workplace basic skills programs are not mandatory, many employees see them as a great benefit and enroll in them. Also,  I do not see workplace basic skills as "the solution," but only as part of a solution to providing every American adult who needs them with free basic skills, and that adult basic skills programs that do not now offer this might want to consider adding a workplace basic skills (including ESL/ESOL) program to their mix of services.

David J. Rosen, Moderator

Program Management CoP

Our program is a small one that must cover two fairly large counties (I must travel 60 miles to get to the office). We are rural and all but one of the tutors, etc. involved are volunteers. Only the administrator is presently paid - and she is not full time! We are struggling with budget and lack of tutors to cover the area. Before we talk mandation, I think we should talk support for those programs doing their best on (half!) a shoestring.





Working in the vast rural and isolated region of the Four Corners, I couldn't agree with you more. Adults in this region face huge challenges accessing educational services. Some are close to centers on reservations that offer live-video instruction for college-level courses, which is great. Some of those credit courses also provide reasonable remediation for students with low academic abilities. However, most tribal members are stuck with no transportation, young kids and elderly family members who require care, and more. Half a shoestring doesn't go very far. Even a whole show string rarely moves things far in helpful directions! :) Leecy

I work in  a rural area and have found distance education to be the most beneficial resource to covering this wide range of skills in students spread across thousands of miles in my district. I use a combination of free podcasts, facebook for sharing resources, and vetted digital curriculum. Distance learning is one option for such a rural area and allows you to serve a wide range of students. (We talked about podcasts in this LINCS discussion ) I understand your challenges and appreciate the work you do in these rural areas. 

I agree, although I like the idea, we must plant the infrastructure so that Adult education has the same weight and value that tradition education does.  I have worked in Adult education for 17 years and am always made to feel "less then" by the powers that be and almost heroic in the inners circles and clients that we serve.  We have to balance the scales...


An Arkansas state legislator, Senator Eddie Joe Williams (R-District 29), has proposed a bill that would require anyone who wants or receives unemployment benefits to have a high school diploma, a GED, or to be enrolled in adult education classes. It is too early, of course, to know if this bill will become a law.

Do you think pursuing an HSE should be mandatory for adults receiving unemployment benefits who lack a h.s. diploma or HSE? Why or why not?

David J. Rosen

Short answer, David? No!!!! Why? We humans resist being required to do things. I strongly believe that if all of the rules and demands were removed from our programs and replaced by widespread information on what education, real education (not just "schooling) can mean to those who want to improve their happiness, yes, happiness (not just $), we would have lines waiting. I hope that others respond here as well. I love dialogue on controversial issues! :) Leecy

In Lake County, Illinois, my home, there are over 50,000 adults over the age of 25 who don't have a high school diploma.  The adult education "system" has a capacity to serve less than 5,000 learners.  If this bill were passed in Illinois without a huge infrastructure investment in adult ed. it would be a thinly-veiled, highly-successful way of disenfranchising the uneducated and non-English speakers from their unemployment benefits.

I think that it should be an option to improve their job prospects, but why mandate it for someone who can go out and get a manual labor job with or without a diploma?  A person has to be able to provide for their family.  I can only imagine what a hardworking person who has been laid off would go through if they were suddenly mandated to take on more responsibility (that they may or may not struggle with) simply because they didn't graduate.  If they want it, that's wonderful, maybe it will help them get back on their feet, but if not?  They are entitled to work and support their families in any way that they choose.  

We are creating such an entitlement country, so why is high school mandatory, why is a college degree mandatory for certain jobs.  There is an expectation for many people who aspire to be successful in their chosen field. Yet is seems we continue to tell certain segments it is ok, we have no expectations of you.  We know you have potential but if you don't want to achieve it we'll pay you anyway.  Them are times when we say "oh you can't be a ...... with a degree or certificate.... Double Standard Much..We also say we will give you sustenance if you don't want to be educated trained or advance.  We can say if you are going to school, getting a certificate we will hold you down with benefits until you "see the light"

There's been a certain amount of degree inflation in the U.S.  College degrees are meaning less than they did before, and we have shortage of skilled workers (technical degree or less).  We all know the importance of Adult Ed, and I think that mandating it in some situations could be useful.  For instance, requiring it as a condition of parole for inmates who didn't finish school or as an alternative to jail for those facing minor charges .  I really love what Missouri is planning with adult high schools.  Making learning free and available to all is extremely important, but mandating it for everyone?  That's unnecessary.  Some people don't want or need more education in their chosen careers and life paths, and that's okay.