Definition of "Adult Education"?

What is the current definition of "Adult Education" in federally funded programs? Are exchange students included? And- exactly what are the attendance, class size and other requirements for regular, blended and distance learning classes? 

Years ago I took a computer basics and an Irish language class, and  the class size was not more than 10. So I imagine that these types of classes have been eliminated. If so, then a lot of adult ed classes for seniors have also been cut, I guess.




Hi Paul,

The most pertinent piece of federal legislation for adult basic skills education (not higher education, or elementary and secondary education) is the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act passed into law by Congress in 2014. The adult basic skills education section is "Title II, Adult Education and Literacy", sometimes cited as "Adult Education and Family Literacy", whose definitions for  learner eligibility, as far as I know, have not changed at least since the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act became part of the Workforce Investment Act in 1998.

Below is the section on definitions, EC. 203. DEFINITIONS.

In this title: (1) ADULT EDUCATION .—The term ‘‘adult education’’ means academic instruction and education services below the postsecondary level that increase an individual’s ability to— (A) read, write, and speak in English and perform mathematics or other activities necessary for the attainment of a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent; (B) transition to postsecondary education and training; and (C) obtain employment. (2) ADULT EDUCATION AND LITERACY ACTIVITIES .—The term‘‘adult education and literacy activities’’ means programs, activities, and services that include adult education, literacy, workplace adult education and literacy activities, family literacy activities, English language acquisition activities, integrated English literacy and civics education, workforce preparation activities, or integrated education and training. (3) ELIGIBLE AGENCY .—The term ‘‘eligible agency’’ means the sole entity or agency in a State or an outlying area responsible for administering or supervising policy for adult education and literacy activities in the State or outlying area, respectively, consistent with the law of the State or outlying area, respectively. (4) ELIGIBLE INDIVIDUAL .—The term ‘‘eligible individual’’means an individual— (A) who has attained 16 years of age; (B) who is not enrolled or required to be enrolled in secondary school under State law; and (C) who— (i) is basic skills deficient; (ii) does not have a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent, and has not achieved an equivalent level of education; or (iii) is an English language learner.

As I understand the law, it is silent about whether a learner has to be a citizen. If the person is 16 and older and complies with (i)  (ii) or (iii) above s/he, is eligible.

Your other questions, I believe, are largely left up to the Governor's designated state agency that is responsible for implementing Title II funding. In California, I believe that is the California Department of Education (CDE). Another important organization in California that provides programs and practitioners with professional development and technical assistance, and that may be able to provide you with guidance in answering your distance learning and technology questions, is the Outreach and Technical Assistance Network for Adult Educators (OTAN) .

David J. Rosen


Brand new to this forum. I didn't realize the definition of adult education was so complicated. As a life long learner and educator of higher ed students as well as adult community students, I am looking forward to learning more!

Form what I have read and from my experience in teaching in Adult Education Program, I would say that adult education is  a form of " continuing education"  for those older than standard high school or college age learners. It is a program geared at specialized technical, ICT or business skill in order to start/advance career or pursue a degree program.

Hi, Benson. Continuing Education is a form of education offered to adults, no doubt. The same is true of all post-high school occupational training and education, including courses offered through colleges and universities. However, when we refer to Adult Education Programs, especially when you see those in caps and addressed here in LINCs, David's definition pretty much nails it.  And, yes, it is rather complex in some ways.

There are two types of Adult Ed Programs in this country: (1) those funded by the federal gov and (2) those that exist to provide similar services but whose funding depends other sources. They are the non-profits, the libraries, churches, and community-based programs that have their own criteria for providing services and reporting student progress...if they do. Leecy

As I touch both worlds, I have to point out that Adult Education also include Adult Basic Education.  The majority of students that I interact with have scored in the 6th to 10th grade level on the TABE, some with secondary completions, some still working on GEDs.  

I'm also of the opinion that if what I've heard is true "the majority of college students are non-traditional students" - we should be changing both our definition of "traditional" and college age...

Thanks for the note, M. In the quote, ""the majority of college students are non-traditional students," does it refer to all US colleges? International?

I'm wondering what the definition for "traditional" would be in this case. Young? Academically or degree oriented? In that sense, would the fact that we might now have older and more career-oriented students, if that's the case, indicate that we have now also have more non-traditional students?

How would you and others here change that definition? Leecy

Hi Leecy, originally I was going to give a general reply to this, but as things typically happen when I'm doing research - I ran across something else...  

According to a Wikipedia source that came up while looking for the statistics, the term itself "is an American term referring to a category of students at tertiary educational institutions."

As early as 2002 there was enough concern about this that there was a study published by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) ( which concluded that nontrads "make up 73 percent of all students enrolled in undergraduate programs, and 39 percent of all undergraduate students are 25 years or older."  The study's definition of nontrad included any of the many things that identify us as adults - older (didn't start immediately after high school), financially independent, dependent(s) other than spouse, works full time.  It also included GED graduates and part time students.

This appears to have been something higher ed has been discussing for a while.  Here is an article from the October 2012 edition of The Chronicle of Higher Education titled The New 'Tradional Student' -  This article references another NCES report that said in 2011 more than 1/3 of students were over 25 and that age group was expected to increase by more than 20% by 2019.


Thanks for the comments and resources, Marshall. Now that brings me to another related question that I hope will generate a lot of discussion here. Given that the majority of students in our institutions no longer match the traditional description, what do we do with instruction? How has instruction changed or how should it change to address this "new" population? Leecy