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Making the Case for Conducting an Adult Learning Campaign



Many national and regional reports can help you make a powerful conceptual and empirical case for taking the needs of adult learners seriously. Links to key research resources are available here.

You also should give particular attention to the report by the American Council on Education, Low-income adults in profile: Improving lives through higher education and the SREB report Investing Wisely in Adult Education is Key to State Prosperity. These resources can help you create data about the benefits of raising adult education levels in your state or region. Many other valuable research and reports are available by searching the Web.

In addition, you need to know that today a great deal of attention is being given to the concept of the "education pipeline" by policy leaders, thanks to the work of NCHEMS and the data provided for states and counties on its Web site (www.higheredinfo.org). Policy-makers increasingly quote information from the site showing that only 18 of every 100 ninth-graders earn a college degree in America as well as the pipeline number for their state. However, in many states, the pipeline discussion focuses entirely on plugging the leaks in that pipeline for traditional aged students: reducing high school dropouts, increasing the number of traditional high school graduates going to college and improving persistence rates among traditional students in college. You will need to provide the data that makes the plight of the adult learner an integral part of that pipeline.

To make the case for a campaign to raise adult education levels, follow these steps:


  • Identify the target audiences that must be convinced to support the campaign you envision. Do they include state-level policy leaders (governor, legislators, or the state chamber of commerce)? Are there particular agency heads in education and workforce/economic development areas, or student financial aid/loan providers who must be convinced? What about institutional boards of trustees and administrators in system offices? Are there other target organizations that you need to provide funding and in-kind support for the campaign, such as media organizations or  foundations?

  • Define the issues that your targets care about the most (e.g., increased tax revenue, reduced health care or criminal justice costs, a more educated workforce to attract jobs, a growing student loan business).

  • Gather statistical data that demonstrates the scope of the problem to gain their attention. Typically the audience to whom you are making the case will not have adult learners on their radar screen. Depending on the anticipated targets for the campaign you could provide data on one of more of the following (again, sources providing much of the statistical data you need are available on this site): Number of adults without a high school diploma; number of adults not enrolled in GED programs or the percentage of GED graduates not moving into postsecondary education; number of adults in your state with some college who did not complete the degree (one small- to medium-sized state identified 70,000 adults with ¾ of the credits needed for a college degree who had not completed as a campaign target; another small state identified more than 200,000 adults with some college but no degree).

  • Construct a problem/solution or cost/benefit analysis tied to your audience's greatest concerns. The Kentucky Long Term Policy Research Center has developed a very sophisticated analysis of the benefits of increased education attainment levels in the state (www.kltprc.net ): "Education and the common good: Social benefits of higher education in Kentucky"). They show the positive impact on tax revenues (a $5 billion increase over a specified period) as well as reduced health care, welfare, and criminal justices costs. Other states have done similar analyses that allow you to extrapolate the impact of increased adult education on the state or regions, so do not reinvent the wheel. If your state is not one of those, your analysis need not be this elaborate but you must be able to make credible claims about short and long term benefits in terms that matter to those to whom you are making the case.

  • Put a face on your case. Develop a collection of "stories" to complement your data. Data-based arguments are necessary but not sufficient cause for action for many policy makers. Put a face on the problems created by, and the benefits generated from, raising adult education levels. The story of a single mom's successful struggle to achieve the types of education goals you are advocating can demonstrate your case more powerfully and emphasize inadequacies of the current system, the need for the campaign and the benefits to be accrued from a successful campaign than a tome of data. A videotape of a small group of fathers telling their stories about the impact of increased education on their ability to be fathers can carry the day with policy leaders concerned about the health of the family in your state or region. In short, data must be concisely presented, easily consumed and complemented with stories presented live, on videotape and generally in ways that put a face on your case.

  • Anticipate objections. Cost is obviously one that must be overcome with the case for benefits, but be prepared for others. For example, though not often said in public, you may sense a negative attitude toward adult learners by some because they think that adults "had their chance and dropped out" and hence are less deserving of help. Employers may fear increased education will lead to loss of employees to better paying jobs. Postsecondary institutional leaders may not be excited about the changes that must occur in their operations to meet the needs of adult learners. Some of these objections may not be easily addressed but do not be naïve as you make your case.

  • Strategically identify partners to deliver the message. These partners ideally will have high credibility with the groups to whom you are making the case. In some cases these will be the same partners who helped you assemble your data and who will help you implement the campaign. Many of these potential partners in your state are identified on this site. A business leader or the head of your state's economic development efforts may be a more credible messenger with some audiences than even the most visible education leader in your state.

It is worth concluding this section by reemphasizing the challenge you must meet in putting adult learners on the education agenda of your state or region. Enormous attention is being paid by governors, legislators and education leaders to early childhood education, literacy and math achievement in elementary, middle, and high school, "redesigning" the high school,  and creating an integrated P-16 or P-20 system. All of these are extremely important issues, so be careful never to pit adult learners needs against this juggernaut. Do work to have adult learning included in these discussions.

For example, if you are in a low-growth state, your census data and projections should help you clearly make the case that the state's economic future cannot be secured without raising adult education levels. The pipeline will just not provide enough new talent to do the job. As one demographer in a low-growth state says to his constituents, "If you want to know what our state work force will look like in 10 years, look around and imagine everyone in the room 10 years older."

If you are in a high-growth state, your challenge is greater. Attention will understandably be on youth, the fast-growing Hispanic population, the coming "tidal wave" of students, and so on. You can still build the case outlined above for the importance of the adult learner effectively. In many high-growth states, the number of under-educated adults in the population is also staggering and its implications for the future economic development of the state equally dire (Texas, for example). Moreover, you can help your state or region "de-silo" education efforts for youth and adults. Many of the adults you target are very likely the parents of the children of most concern in the state's education pipeline. Agencies concerned with issues like family literacy or the family as the unit of analysis in addressing health or violence issues can be your ally in demonstrating the synergy that can occur when programs target adults and children in families in an integrated and coherent way.

For example, many states have millions of dollars in federal Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grants focused on increasing the number of low income children in middle school who go to college. Two major components of that grant must be programs targeting the parents of these students and a "college awareness" effort. You could easily envision community/school based programs and media messages using GEAR UP, Adult Education, and college access marketing funds in an integrated way to make increased education a family focused effort. If you take the time to scan you environment, you will no doubt find other opportunities to link your case for the other adult learner with other initiatives already on the fast track for funding and political attention in your state.





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