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Youth in ABE: The Numbers

Youth in ABE: The Numbers

by Jennifer Roloff Welch & Kathrynn Di Tommaso
Is the number of youth enrolled in the adult basic education system (ABE) on the rise? It's hard to say. A July, 2003, article in The New York Times reported growing numbers of students being pushed out of high school, as an unintended consequence of policies designed to hold high schools accountable for educational outcomes. In October, 2003, Focus on Basics editor Barbara Garner posted this question to the Focus on Basics electronic discussion list: "Has the number of youth (16-24) as a percentage of your enrollment increased in the past two years? By how much?" A handful of people responded, mentioning large but not necessarily increasing numbers of youth in their programs.

This article summarizes our attempt to answer the question: Is the number of youth in adult basic education on the rise? And if so, why? According to Office of Vocational and Adult Education (OVAE) statistics, the percentage of youth ages 17 to 24 remained steady for a few years (1991, 1995, 1999) and then, in 2000, increased by about six percent. The increasing number of youth in ABE is a difficult trend to document for two reasons. One is that the organizations, both governmental and nongovernmental, that compile relevant statistical data use different age ranges to define youth. For example, the US Census uses the broad age range 16 to 24 years old. In 2000, OVAE changed its categorization, dividing the category 16- to 24-year-olds into two more specific groupings of 16- to 18- year-olds and 19- to 24-year-olds. Another challenge is that adult basic education is not always identified as an independent category differentiated from other forms of continuing education.

Despite these challenges, in this article we examine the data that document the number of people enrolled in ABE by age group. We then look at related data that provide possible explanations for the slight rise in percentages of youth in ABE programs.

Scholar Elisabeth Hayes investigated the phenomenon of youth in ABE for NCSALL's Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy in 2000. For the purposes of this article, we have used the same definitions for components of adult literacy education as Hayes did in her article. ABE includes basic skills training at the pre-high school level. Adult secondary programs (ASE) typically assist students in earning an alternative high school diploma such as a certificate of General Educational Development (GED). Hayes did not address youth in classes in English for speakers of other languages (ESOL) courses; we touch on ESOL briefly.

We started exploring this issue using a definition of youth as 16 to 17 years of age, as Hayes did. She chose that range because "they seemed to present the most distinctive issues and challenges while also representing the group with the most significant increase in number. These young people are likely to be enrolling in adult literacy education with little or no break after leaving high school. There are societal and familial expectations that they should be in school." We found this age range to be unwieldy, however. Recent statistics by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) use 16 to 24 years of age as their youngest age group. Thus, although in some cases (OVAE data since 2000, for example) we can provide information by ages as specific as 16 to 18 years, we broadened our definition of youth to encompass ages 16 to 24 years because this seems to be the age range most statistical reports commonly use for younger people.

OVAE compiles statistics for state-administered, federally funded adult basic education programs. These numbers do not include state or locally funded programs, but they do represent the bulk of ABE funding. According to OVAE, the percentage of enrollment in state-administered adult education programs that consisted of participants ages 16 to 24 years dipped between 1996 and 1998, and then rose from 1998 through 2000 (see chart below). At the same time, however, that the percentage of overall enrollment was increasing, the numbers of young people enrolled dropped. In 2000, when OVAE changed its categorizations to 16 to 18 years old and 19 to 24 years old rather than 16 to 24 years old, the number of more youthful youth, 16 to 18 year olds, was 465,967, or 16 percent of the total.

Enrollment of 16- to 24-Year-Old Participants In State-Administered Adult Basic Education
Year Number % of Total Enrollment
1996 1,485,917 36.7
1997 1,428,385 35
1998 1,385,165 34
1999 1,271,126 35
2000 1,193,599 41
Data for this chart taken from
retrieved on March 24, 2004

Adult Education Program Data
According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), participation of students ages 17 to 24 years in all forms of adult education in the United States has increased steadily since 1991. NCES defines "all forms of adult education" as adult education, including ABE, English as a second language (ESL), and apprentice programs; part-time postsecondary education; career- or job-related courses; and personal development courses. Program participation categories changed from 1991 to 1995 and again in 1999, from "in any program," which is explained in a footnote as "any participation that includes adult basic education, English as a second language, and apprentice programs not shown separately" in 1995, to the more specific categories of "basic education," "English as a Second Language," and "apprentice programs" in 1999. The level of 17- to 24-year-olds participating in these three categories within the "any program" category in 1995 was 47 percent. In 1999, this percentage increased to 49.9, with 4.9 percent participating in ABE and 1.1 percent participating in ESL. Part-time postsecondary education participants increased from 12.6 percent in 1995 to 13.6 percent in 1999. The population of 17-to 24-year-olds in all adult education programs increased from 10,539 individuals in 1995 to 23,372 individuals in 1999 (NCES, 2001).

In another NCES publication, The Condition of Education (2003), participation of individuals aged 16 to 24 years in some form of adult education (work-related courses, personal interest courses, or other activities, including basic skills training, apprenticeships, or ESL) is documented as having steadily increased. In 1991, 37 percent of individuals ages 16 to 24 years participated in some form of adult education; this number increased to 42 percent in 1995 and 51 percent in 1999. In 2001, the percentage of those ages 16 to 24 years who participated in some form of adult education was 53. This age group had a higher rate of participation in adult education activities than the rest of the population. Participation of youth ages 16 to 24 years specifically in adult literacy education has also increased. In 1999, 13.9 percent of persons ages 16 to 24 years participated in basic skills training, apprenticeships, and ESL courses, which is an increase from 8.9 percent in 1991. Since 1999, participation of youth ages 16 to 24 years has remained fairly constant at 13 percent in 2001 (NCES, 2003).

US Census
In the United States, the number of youth ages 16 to 24 years overall has continued to increase since 1988. From 1992 to 1996, their numbers grew from 3.4 million to 3.6 million. According to the Census Bureau, the number of 16- to 24-year-olds grew in 2000 to 3.9 million. The overall increase of youth in the population may be one reason that there seems to be an increase of youth in ABE. In addition, perhaps the desire to drop out of their traditional high schools in conjunction with their lack of employment opportunities may cause increasing numbers of younger students to enroll in adult literacy education programs (Robinson, 2000).

Drop Out Rates
We wondered whether an increase in drop out rates had a relationship to the increase of youth in ABE. As indicated by the graph below, from 1992 to 1999 the percentage of students earning a high school diploma showed a slight decrease while the percentage of students earning an alternative credential increased. While it can not be assumed that everyone who earns an alternative credential was enrolled in an ABE program, it seems safe to say that some proportion of those earning alternative credentials are enrolled in ABE programs in order to study for the GED.

GED Trends
We also wondered if trends in GED test-taking showed more 16- to 24-year-olds taking the test since 1992. Although youth taking the test are not necessarily enrolled in GED preparation programs, we hypothesized that the anecdotal information about an increase in youth in ABE may relate to the percentages of youth taking the GED. We found that the percentage of persons 19 years old or younger who took the GED increased steadily from 1992 to 2000 (age is categorized from age 19 or younger to age 20 to 24, hence the difference in age brackets from what we have been using previously). The percentage of GED-takers ages 20 to 24 years decreased during those years and only slightly increased in 2001. Overall, the average age of GED test-takers has gone down since 1992. See the table and chart on page 21 for details.

According to statistics compiled by OVAE, the participation of youth in ABE has increased slightly over the past few years. The US census data show an increase in the number of people ages 16 to 24 years in the overall population. At the same time the percentages of the 16- to 24-year-old population earning traditional high school diplomas decreased and the percentage earning alternative credentials has increased. While this does not mean that young people earning alternative credentials attended ABE programs, one can hypothesize that a certain percentage of them did. Also, GED testing statistics show that the average age of those taking the test is increasingly younger. These three factors combined may be contributing to the slight increase of youth in ABE.

To understand trends such as this one, standardization of the age ranges used to demarcate youth is necessary. This would allow trends to be followed more easily, and research into the causes and effects of these trends could be conducted more easily.

Perhaps the most important lesson we can take from these data is not that the numbers of youth in ABE seem to be increasing but that the percentage of youth in ABE is quite large: 41 percent in 2000. That is 41 percent in one age bracket; the other 59 percent are spread between students aged between 25 and more than 70 years. These are demographics that should not be ignored.

American Council on Education (2002) Trends in GED Testing 1949-2001,

Creighton , S., & Hudson, C. (2002). Participation trends and patterns in adult education: 1991-1999. National Center for Educational Statistics Analysis Report.

Digest of Education Statistics Tables and Figures 1999, National Center for Education Statistics.

GED Testing Service, American Council on Education, Statistical Report 2001.

Hayes, E. (2000). "Youth in adult literacy education programs." Annual Review of Adult Learning and Literacy. Vol. 1,
J. Comings, B. Garner, & C. Smith (eds.), (pp. 74-110). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Kim, K., Collins, M., & Inc, W. (1997). "Participation of adults in English as a second language classes, 1994-1995." National Center for Educational Statistics.

Metropolitan Alliance for Adult Learning. "Teen Dropouts Increasingly Falter in Adult Education Programs." Metropolitan Alliance for Adult Learning News, Second Quarter, 2001.

National Center for Education Statistics (2001). Participation in Adult Education.

National Center for Education Statistics (2003). The Condition of Education 2003. NCES 2003-067, Washington, DC: US Government Printing Office.

Robinson, E. (2000). "Building resilienceb helping young adults in the adult education classroom." Adult Education Resource and Information Service, 11 (4), 3-6.

US Department of Commerce, Bureau of the Census, Current Population Survey, October 1999.

US Department of Education, Office of Vocational and Adult Education, Division of Adult Education and Literacy,

About the Authors
Kathrynn Di Tommaso is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She has taught developmental reading and writing at community colleges in the San Francisco Bay Area and in the Boston area. Her research interests include past and current risk and protective factors and their relation to educational outcomes for adult basic education students.

Jennifer Roloff Welch is a doctoral candidate at the Harvard University Graduate School of Education. She has taught middle school ESOL and high school English in Illinois and, most recently, in Cambridge, MA. Her research interests include adolescent and adult literacy, learning, and development. She is currently working on research related to adult women immigrants' experiences of learning English.