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Are adult _basic_ literacy programs disappearing?


For 37 years, Portland Community College, the largest community college in Oregon, and one of the largest in the country, has had a volunteer adult literacy program. According to this article it will be closing, and it is not clear that there will be anything to replace it. There is at least one other volunteer adult literacy program in Portland, the Portland Literacy Council, but I wonder how we should interpret the community college decision to no longer offer adult basic literacy. Is it no longer a needed service in Portland? Did the community college decide that adult literacy is not part of its core mission, that not-for-profit organizations or libraries could do that work? I wonder if there is a pattern in other parts of the country of losing adult basic literacy programs. I wonder, too, if the newly authorized Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act has been interpreted to mean that basic adult literacy is not a priority, that its focus is to enable preparation for post-secondary education and careers. If so, since the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act is now part of WIOA, where will public funding come from to support library, community-based and volunteer not-for profit organizations to provide adult basic literacy?

Our national performance on adult literacy in the United States, compared with our international peer countries, is very low on the PIAAC Survey of Adult Skills. Can this not be a public policy concern? Shouldn't  this be a time for us to focus on adult basic literacy as well as college and career readiness, and English language learning? Does anyone have data on how adult basic literacy services in the U.S. are trending? Are we losing adult basic literacy services at a time when the hard evidence shows we need them?

David J. Rosen


Leecy's picture
One hundred

David, thanks for sharing this info.

Without knowing more about what is behind that decision, I'll venture a guess, on behalf of the college and inviting comments about the nature of federal funding to Adult Ed.

Federal funding to Adult Ed minimally supports operational costs. Therefore, fed funding through states has supported services through programs, like colleges or BOCS, which  have administrative funding to run Federally-funded projects. In fact, federal adult ed funding piggy-backs on a lot of other funding to make it possible to run programs.

If a college doesn't have the funds to provide the overhead services required to run programs, I can see the resistance to continue offering those services. You mention volunteers. I have run several successful volunteer programs. They require immense effort to train, supervise, and manage volunteers. It isn't easy and it is extremely time- and effort-consuming

To address your question, "Are adult _basic_ literacy programs disappearing?" Unless there is funding to support the administration and management of programs, yes, they are.

I hope that your post generates many comments relating to this event since is is representative of what happens nationwide!  Thanks, Leecy


Paul Rogers's picture
One hundred

LEECY, you raise very good points, and as someone who does not work in the “system”, I do not understand how it works.

For example, in the situation in Portland, a successful volunteer program was closed after 37 years - so it would seem that a volunteer program is more expensive to run than a program that pays its teachers!

If funding from the federal government is so tenuous that a successful volunteer program can be eliminated, then it becomes necessary to look elsewhere, to private foundations and to local sources.

At the same time, it is almost obligatory for an adult education program to revise its methods so that, minimally, Blended Learning becomes the main method of running volunteer tutor programs.

Actually, mobile devices can be used effectively so that one tutor can provide instruction to many more people. Training tutors is much easier with the use of the internet, and should not require as much supervision.

Many non-profits are constantly engaged in local fund-raising, sometimes  very creatively. 

In doing some research I found an example of a grant application from a non-profit educational foundation which includes what it does and does not fund:

Funding Criteria

Public funds awarded under this grant range up to $75,000, with first year grants not exceeding $25,000. Only one project is allowed. Total awards cannot exceed $180,000 per agency.

Allowable Costs

·       Personnel

·       Contractual

·       Travel

·       Library and instructional materials (print and non-print)

·       Supplies, postage, and printing

·       Administrative and facility cost not to exceed 10% of total grant request

Costs not allowed

·       Instructor’s wages

·       Equipment

·       Food

·       Furnishings

·       Student or Volunteer Transportation

·       Volunteer stipends

·       Out-of-state travel

·       Promotional items

·       Background checks


Leecy's picture
One hundred

Paul, what is the source for this funding so that everyone can look into it? Thanks, Leecy.

Carole Scholl's picture

It's a shame what's happening here in Portland, OR. Portland has the second to worst high school graduation rate in the nation, so it would stand to reason that resources should be spent on skilling up adults so they can enter into career pathways. However, the college says its hands are tied due to WIOA which emphasizes career pathways success... Low literate adults-- who need lots of instruction-- can't even onboard a pathway..and get left out of the budget equation.

Are other states / regions experiencing program cuts to this population due to WIOA pressures?


S Jones's picture
One hundred

We're definitely in the "fast track or get out!" trend... and since our state government's completely shut down, even what we did have isn't there any more.   They do have enough people still working to say that if our performance doesn't improve (which is a little hard to do when you have to lay off the teachers b/c you got no funding), the imaginary funding is in peril.  

I am, therefore, rather interested in the "informal" options. 

Leecy's picture
One hundred

I hear you David, Paul, Susan. and others here. The formula that programs are given to follow is - fewer teachers+more at-risk students+ less funding = better results? I wonder where that came from!

Shall we start a discussion  in the Nonformal Adult Education specifically dedicated to sharing funding ideas and resources? What think Paul and David? I'm game! If the input is regular, the discussion will remain in the forefront and easy to access.

I'm also thinking about where a new discussion should be devoted to simply listing critical issues faced by nonformal programs or any program in isolated, rural areas.

Just thinking. Leecy
Leecy Wise, Moderator,  Diversity and Literacy CoP