Lifelong Learning: New Strategies for the Education of Working Adults
The labor force, which more than doubled over the past forty years, will grow very slowly between now and 2040. The young cohorts moving through school and then into and through the labor force are much smaller than in the baby boomer years and (reversing the trends of the past four decades) will almost certainly have lower educational attainment than the older groups who will be aging out of the workforce. The demographic factors that worked to our nation’s advantage in the past are turning against us in the future.
The upshot: the
More than half of
The adult literacy problem is equally severe. Findings from the 2003 National Assessment of Adult Literacy indicate that 31 million people, or 14 percent of Americans age 16 or older in the
Current federal policies designed to ameliorate these problems are failing. Adult basic education and language training programs serve only a tiny fraction of those who need help. Postsecondary student-aid policies are sharply skewed toward traditional students—recent high school graduates without dependents and with no labor market attachment. These policies promote postsecondary educational practices, such as program structures and delivery methods, which simply do not work for most working adults. We have no system in place that might encourage employers to invest more in the skills of their less prepared workers. And we offer little help to those low-skilled adults who are prepared to invest in their own education.
The problem of under-educated and under-skilled adults workers is getting worse, not better, which is why it is immediately necessary to put new strategies in place. This paper offers five suggestions. First, create new economic incentives for employers to help finance basic skill training, English as a Second Language or ESL training, and credentialed postsecondary education for their employees. To facilitate these new incentives, this paper proposes an employer tax credit in the amount of 50 percent of certain educational investments, up to $2,625 per employee per year.
Second, it is essential to strengthen existing incentives for individuals themselves to invest in their basic skills and their credentialed postsecondary education. This paper proposes an increase in the percentage of education expenses allowed under the Lifetime Learning Tax Credit from 20 percent to 50 percent, making LLTC tax credits of up to $2,000 per year available to far more working adult students. And we urge that the credit be made fully refundable for low-income workers.
Fourth, adult basic education requires a new strategy centered on the deployment and utilization of technology to accelerate English-language proficiency among non-English speakers and employer-defined basic skills for low-literacy adults. This paper proposes that Congress revamp the existing federal adult basic education program, beginning anew with a more employment-focused and technology-based program that supports individual and employer investment in basic skills and English acquisition. The LLTC should be used as the primary funding vehicle for adult basic education and ESL instruction.
These five proposals are bold only in their departure from current policy; they represent a measured and necessary response to a huge problem. These new approaches are “demand-side” strategies—market-oriented policy interventions that seek to stimulate and organize effective demand for education rather than simply trying to increase “more of the same’ supply-side offerings. Our new strategies aim to influence, as directly as possible, the ways that less-educated workers and their employers spend their money so that together they invest more in education.
This is a big job that requires unambiguous and substantial economic incentives, unfiltered by intermediating agencies or institutions. The combination of targeted tax credits for both individuals and their employers, modest grants to states to support reforms in higher education, a new start for adult basic education and English language acquisition—all supported by an aggressive marketing campaign—offers an efficient method of incentive and reward.
What’s more, this is a comprehensive educational strategy that over time will pay for itself many times over. If thousands of employers and millions of workers respond to our combination of tax credits and state-directed incentives, then reduced tax revenues and new appropriations might cost as much as $10 billion to 12 billion annually. Yet the downstream return on that human capital investment will be enormous—in the form of rising productivity, higher wages, a growing economy and widening tax base. We simply cannot afford not to make this investment.
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