CATALYST V22N1 - Adult Basic Education: Should Community Colleges or Public Schools be Responsible for Implementing the Program?

Volume XXII, Number 1
Winter 1992

Adult Basic Education: Should Community Colleges or Public Schools be Responsible for Implementing the Program?

Anthony Lotito
Southwest Virginia Community College

James Hoerner
Virginia Tech

Researchers in the 1970s concluded that approximately 23 million persons in the United States were unable to read and write well enough to perform daily tasks such as reading want ads in newspapers (Duffy, 1986). According to a U.S. Department of Education study done in 1985, more than 27 million Americans 17 years of age or older cannot read or write well enough to perform basic requirements of everyday life. Another 45 million are considered barely competent in basic academic skills. In summary, more than 72 million--one out of three adults--may lack the reading and writing skills needed to function effectively. The U.S. Department of Education also estimates that illiteracy is growing at the rate of 2 million each year (Duffy, 1986).

History of Adult Basic Education Programs

The passage of the Adult Education Act of 1966 and its subsequent amendments represented the first major funding effort of the federal government to reduce adult illiteracy (Grede & Friedlander, 1981). For the past 22 years, federal policy for adult literacy has been contained principally in the Adult Education Act and in the administration of the program it supports. The Act authorized 90% federal funding with states matching 10% to encourage states to develop adult literacy education programs (Ellis, 1984). Funded under the Adult Education Act, Adult Basic Education (ABE) is the largest single program to reduce adult illiteracy. Federal funding for this program, after 16 years of growth, has been frozen at existing levels for the past seven years and, therefore, in constant dollars has diminished. The $100 million budget allocated to Adult Basic Education needs to be viewed in the context of the $20 million a year adult illiteracy costs taxpayers (Kozol, 1985).

Delker (1984) emphasized that the original authorization of Adult Basic Education gave much discretion to state and local agencies and clearly required states to bear the responsibility of developing adult literacy education programs. The 1978 amendments to the Adult Education Act contained several significant new policies. These amendments required that services to adults to expanded throughout the public and private sector, including community colleges, instead of relying so heavily on the public schools as had been done previously.

Public Schools vs. Community Colleges

Cross and McCartan (1984) pointed out that in several states, the community colleges--with their open admission policies and active recruitment of adult part-time learners- -have developed innovative and comprehensive remedial programs for adults. These actions have brought community colleges and local school districts into direct competition regarding who should have primary responsibility for adult basic education programs. States could profit from more information to determine what is distinctive about the mission of these two providers of Adult Basic Education classes, how much overlap exists, and which segments of the population are being serviced and by whom (Cross & McCartan, 1984).

The Study

Data available from the North Carolina Department of Community Colleges and the Virginia Department of Education revealed significantly higher participation rates of enrollees in Adult Basic Education programs in North Carolina than in Virginia (see Table 1). In North Carolina, delivery of Adult Basic Education programs is the responsibility of community colleges. In Virginia, the primary delivery system used for Adult Basic Education programs is the public school system within the state. There has been little research, nationally or in North Carolina or Virginia, on which delivery system--the public school or the community college--is most likely to reduce barriers and make access to Adult Basic Education programs more readily available to adults. Nor have factors been identified that make one delivery system more attractive to potential ABE enrollees than another. Data from this study may generate knowledge useful in helping adult educators identify factors that influence adults to enroll in ABE programs and to determine if these factors are associated more with community colleges or with public schools as the primary delivery system.

Table 1
ABE Enrollment in North Carolina and Virginia, 1985-86
Enrollees Population Enrollees Male Enrollees Female Enrollees Total Servable Population*
North Carolina 23,968 29,815 53,783 835,620
Virginia 8,866 14,130 22,996 677,968
*Servable Population denotes individuals 25 years or older with less than 9 years of education (Source U.S. Department of Commerce, Bureau of Census, 1980, Washington, DC)

The specific purpose of this study was to determine why there are more enrollees in ABE programs administered through community colleges than in ABE programs administered through the public school systems. This purpose was achieved by a comparison of differences and similarities relating to factors that influence adults' participation in ABE classes using two different modes of delivery in North Carolina and Virginia.


This study utilized a qualitative research approach of naturalistic inquiry, and specifically, the methodology of the case study. The aim was to identify a sample of ABE students from two states using different means of delivering ABE instruction. This would make it possible to compare differences and similarities in Adult Basic Education classes using different modes of delivery. Theoretical sampling was used for the selection of the population. "This control over similarities and differences is vital for discovering categories, and for developing and relating their theoretical properties, all necessary for the development of an emergent theory" (Glaser & Strauss, 1967, p. 55).

In North Carolina, Adult Basic Education classes are delivered through the Department of Community Colleges. Two rural Appalachian colleges located in western North Carolina were chosen as sites for this study. In Virginia, where ABE is delivered primarily through the public school systems, two rural country school systems were chosen as samples.


The major findings that resulted from the study of the four sites revealed that distinct differences exist in the administration of ABE programs in community colleges and public schools. These differences help to explain why more students enroll in ABE classes administered through community colleges in North Carolina than in those administered through public school systems in Virginia.

First Finding

The identification of differences in student recruitment strategies led to the first major finding of this study. Recruiting strategies in the community colleges studied are organized by a full-time ABE administrator through a centralized recruiting effort including networking with local businesses, industries, and governmental agencies.

The perception of ABE students from community colleges in North Carolina reflects satisfaction with both the volume and dispersion of publicity. As one informant stated:

You see and hear advertisements about the ABE program practically everywhere, radio, TV, billboards, pamphlets in doctor's offices. It is hard not to know about the program.

However, at Virginia public school sites included in this study, formal recruiting is done primarily by the individual teacher, with some assistance from the regional specialist and the ABE administrator, both of whom are employed on a part-time basis.

The informants from ABE programs in Virginia felt that the advertising methods of the ABE program need more refining. Being motivated to attend ABE/GED classes by employers was not mentioned by the Virginia respondents. Some responses were:

The advertisement could be more effective, definitely.

It needs to be on radio and TV more and not just rely on "word-of-mouth."

It needs to be advertised more. It may not be important to a lot of people, but it is very important to me.

One individual exemplified the barrier of not knowing about the program. He stated:

I had to drop out of school to help my parents with the bills. I had wanted to do something like these classes for years, but I only found out about the classes a few months ago. I think the classes need to be advertised more.

Second Finding

The identification of differences in the time frames in which classes are scheduled and the availability of facilities in which classes are taught led to the second major finding of this study. Flexible scheduling, both day and evening, with the potential for students to advance through the program at his/her desired rate of completion, is characteristic of ABE in the community colleges studied.

The ABE centers in North Carolina, located at the respective community colleges, are open to all ABE students. Often students from off-campus sites come to the centers in addition to their regular meeting times, thus enabling them to accomplish their educational goals more quickly. The off- campus and on-campus teachers work closely together to assure that students coming to the center are given appropriate learning experiences contingent upon their competencies. ABE students also use these centers as study sites. As one off-campus ABE student explained:

I like being able to go to the college whenever I want to. I can progress faster, and it gives me a quiet place to study. The teachers there (the college) and the instructor here (off- campus site) work very closely together.

Rigid scheduling of classes two evenings a week for three hours each evening describes ABE administered through public schools at the Virginia sites. Informants revealed scheduling classes only in the evening eliminates potentially large numbers of individuals who prefer day classes, and scheduling classes only six hours per week proves frustrating for students who are capable and who desire to move more quickly through the program. One Virginia ABE student stated:

We don't meet enough. I would like to meet more than six hours a week. I want to get through this program and get a job, and if we could meet more I could get to work quicker. I think if we met more and different times, day and night, that more people would take classes. Several of my friends who need the program have told me they will not take the program because it takes too long.

At the North Carolina sites, community colleges are able to provide fully equipped, fully staffed facilities exclusively for ABE programs that are available day and evening. The public schools in Virginia are unable to provide facilities, equipment, and staffing comparable to community college delivery in North Carolina and are also unable to provide facilities exclusively utilized by the ABE program.

Third Finding

The third major finding of this study involved the differences in commitment of institutional leadership. Commitment of community colleges to Adult Basic Education, in the sites investigated, becomes evident when one considers that adults with less than a high school education, in most cases, cannot enroll in college level classes until they complete the ABE and GED programs. Consequently, community college administrators in the two North Carolina sites are cognizant of the fact that if people fail to enroll in the ABE programs, enrollment in college level classes will eventually suffer.

Public school administrators in the sties studied have no such impetus, or other apparent reason, to be committed to the ABE program. A study by Boyer and Hechinger (1981) lends support to this finding. These authors concluded that the need for the community college to maintain its commitment to the "open door" with comprehensive literacy programs for adults in an adult learning environment seems to be the preference of adults, rather than literacy programs offered at the public high school--a place where these adults have previously failed to learn or a place that has previously failed to help them learn, and a place that seems to make a limited commitment to provide the resources necessary for success.

Fourth Finding

The fourth major finding relates to differences in program funding. Funding in North Carolina for Adult Basic Education is derived from federal and state funds with a significant percentage being state monies. State funding is based on numbers of students--the more students enrolled, the more money, including allowances for enrolling large percentages of potential ABE students, is allocated. Funding for Adult Basic Education in Virginia is also derived from federal and state sources, but Virginia compensates a much smaller percentage of the cost of ABE programs than does North Carolina (see Table 2).

Table 2
1985-1986 State Expenditures for Adult Basic Education Programs
Servable State Per Capita Expenditure Population Expenditure
North Carolina $8,974,881.82 835,620 $10.74
Virginia $852,293.58 677,968 $1.26

The data from the sites revealed major differences in administrative organization of ABE programs delivered through community colleges and ABE programs delivered through public school systems. Furthermore, these differences were shown to have a profound effect on ABE enrollment. In each of the identified differences, the researchers found community colleges to be both inherently and organizationally better equipped to attract larger numbers of ABE enrollees than are public school systems.


The most important question raised by this study that will influence future research is: Should state officials of Adult Basic Education programs that are currently administered through public school systems consider, if possible, changing policy and giving responsibility for ABE programs to community colleges? Prior to answering this question, the following recommendations should be addressed:

For state administrators of ABE programs delivered through public school divisions, the researchers recommend a feasibility study to determine, if under the current system, it is possible to (a) employ a full-time ABE administrator whose sole responsibility is to organize and supervise the ABE program, (b) employ full-time ABE teachers who teach only ABE classes, establish classroom facilities that are available day, evenings, and weekends exclusively for ABE programs, and (d) determine the level of commitment the superintendent and the local school board demonstrate toward ABE programs.

Based on the findings of this study and the postulates that have been identified, the recommendations listed above need to be implemented if large numbers of ABE enrollees are to be served. If public school officials determine that accomplishing these criteria is not feasible within their current system, then the researchers believe that serious consideration must be given to shifting the responsibility of ABE programs away from public schools and toward community colleges.

For state administrators of ABE programs delivered through community colleges, the researchers make the following recommendations:

1. College leaders should assess the effects of ABE programs on other programs within the college. Grede and Friedlander (1981) noted some community college administrators view literacy programs as another factor contributing to the loss of status for community colleges as institutions of higher education. Findings from such a study should help determine if other segments of the college community see ABE as a help or a hindrance to their specific programs and to the overall mission of the college.

2. A study should be designed to determine the attitudes and feelings of public school officials concerning ABE programs being administered through community colleges. This investigation should be carried out jointly by officials from community colleges and public school divisions, or by an independent investigator.

3. A study should be devised to determine if full-time ABE faculty are different from part-time ABE faculty in (a) ability to attract potential ABE enrollees, (b) helping ABE students achieve their educational goals, (c) attitudes toward ABE students, (d) attitudes toward ABE programs, and (e) educational background.

The literature comparing the effectiveness of part-time versus full-time faculty is abundant but unyielding as to conclusiveness. Perhaps a study of this nature would add to the body of knowledge in this field.

For state administrators of ABE programs in Virginia, the researchers recommend the following:

1. A similar study should be conducted using different sites and different geographic locations in both North Carolina and in Virginia. Findings of the two studies could then be compared to determine if a third study is warranted to reach a consensus.

2. A study should be designed to determine why Virginia is unable to fund ABE programs at the same level as North Carolina.

For federal administrators of ABE programs, the researchers make the following recommendations:

1. A national study should be conducted to determine the extent and nature of ABE in community colleges.

2. An instrument should be devised capable of determining the percentage of ABE enrollees who eventually accomplish their educational goals, which reveals the time spent in ABE classes to realize these goals.

3. A national study should be formulated comparing the number of enrollees in ABE programs administered through community colleges with the number of enrollees in ABE programs administered through public schools.


Boyer, E, & Hechinger, F. (1981). Higher learning in the nation's service. Washington, DC: The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Delker, P. (1984). Ensuring effective adult literacy policies and procedures at the federal and state levels. Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Washington, DC.

Duffy, J.E. (1986). Project literacy U.S.: Cooperation to attack illiteracy. Adult Literacy and Basic Education, 10(2), 65-73.

Ellis, J. (1984). A history and analysis of the Adult Education Act, 1964-1984. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED 252 658)

Glaser, G.G., & Strauss, A.L. (1967). The discovery of grounded theory. Chicago: Aldine Publishing Co.

Grede, J., & Friedlander, J. (1981). Adult basic education in community colleges. Junior College Resource Review.

Kozol, J. (1985). Literate America. Garden City, NY: Anchor Press/Doubleday.

by Sarah Ryan