Op-Ed: The economics of literacy: Why adult education matters

As we struggle with how to reduce inequities in our public schools and address the achievement gap in our state, a high-quality, coordinated adult literacy system is critical to lifting people out of poverty, strengthening our economy, and improving our overall quality of life.

When young people leave high school without the skills to be successful in the workplace, or read to their children, or communicate well with others, there are long-term consequences, not only for those individuals and their families, but for local businesses that need a skilled labor force to compete in a global economy.

A strong, well-resourced adult literacy system – adult education centers, community colleges, workforce training programs, and community-based organizations – is essential to bridging this gap between Connecticut’s under-skilled, unemployed individuals, and a labor market that increasingly demands post-secondary education and training.

Op-ed submit bugTrends indicate that by 2025, roughly 70 percent of available jobs will require some education beyond high school, yet the number of skilled workers in Connecticut’s labor force is decreasing. With statewide high school graduation rates hovering around 85 percent and Baby Boomers aging out of the workforce at a higher rate than young people are entering it, our economy faces a critical challenge.

Meeting this demand for skilled workers will require more than simply increasing high school graduation rates. Thousands of adults – with and without diplomas – will need to be trained or re-trained with the skills that companies need to grow and thrive in Connecticut.

Developing a skilled workforce is important to a sustaining a vibrant business community, but opportunities for education and job training are also important to individuals and families. Adults with low-literacy potentially face a lifetime of low-wages and other issues related to living in poverty, including a greater risk of health problems, increased likelihood for incarceration, and cognitive delays for their children.

In fact, according to data from U.S. Census Bureau, individuals without a high school diploma make only about half of the annual earnings made by those with a diploma, and only about one-third of the annual earnings made by those with associate’s degrees. By providing opportunities to learn the skills and earn the credentials that lead to locally available, well-paying jobs, our adult literacy system is essential to helping families achieve self-sufficiency and reducing the need for public assistance.

By investing in adults, we are also investing in our children. Research shows that parents’ educational attainment is the best indicator of economic mobility for their children, and that there is a correlation between economic stability and student achievement. Last year in Connecticut, only about 32 percent of third graders who qualified for free and reduced lunch were reading at grade level, compared to almost 57 percent of all third graders (reading at grade level) statewide.

If we expect to improve student success in our public schools, we also need to support and expand the number of training opportunities that are available to parents through our adult literacy system.

As we have seen throughout this election season, jobs, taxes, and state spending are critical issues for the people of Connecticut. Creating opportunities for adults to receive training and education that prepare them for careers in Connecticut-based businesses has a significant impact on all three of these issues.

If our schools, training centers, and community colleges are teaching the skills that people need to be competitive in the local job market, and businesses have a talent pipeline that enables growth, then Connecticut will have a stronger, healthier economy that can support better schools, attract more businesses, and improve our overall quality of life.

This is why adult education matters.

Sarah Dudzic is the Director of the Move UP! Partnership for Adult Learning in Hartford.

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