Adult Basic Education: A gateway to post-secondary success
What is Adult Basic Education?
Adult basic education (ABE) is the provision of elementary and secondary level education to adults through BC’s K-12 and most public post-secondary institutions. The post-secondary system is used as a delivery method for adult basic education in recognition that many adults achieve a higher rate of success and seek further education when studying in a college or university environment.
Adult basic education is an integral part of BC’s education systems, playing a role in increasing adult literacy (36% of adults in BC are illiterate according to the BC government)1, and improving high school completion and post-secondary participation rates within BC’s Aboriginal population. To be effective, adult basic education must be accessible to all of those who need it. However, recent gains made by the re-introduction of free ABE have been eroded by a lack of investments by the provincial government to sustain it.
Who are Adult Basic Education Students?
Adult basic education students fall into three basic categories: those seeking to upgrade their high school courses to qualify for employment opportunities or entry into post-secondary education, those seeking to complete their high school studies, and those with developmental disabilities enrolled in adult special education programs.
The bulk of adult basic education students (71%) have already completed high school, and return to primary or secondary-level education to qualify for employment or post-secondary education.(2) In many cases, these adults take basic education courses because their high school courses are no longer relevant, due to the length of time since they attended high school. This is often the case in math and science courses. In other cases, adults must change their employment or post-secondary field and must take new secondary level courses they did not previously need to do so.
A Socio-Economic Equalizer
Six-year high school completion rates for Aboriginal youth stand at 47%, compared to 82% for non-Aboriginal students. As a result, the proportion of Aboriginal students in adult basic education is higher, at 12%, than in the traditional K-12 system.(3)
Women also make up a higher proportion of adult basic education students than in traditional K-12 (59% versus 49%) and 29% of adult basic education students support a family while pursuing post-secondary education (10% as single parents). Overall, 71% of students in the system live on an annual income below the poverty line, despite half being employed full-time while taking classes.(4)
Accessible adult basic education is not, therefore, simply important to meeting BC’s objectives of a knowledge-based economy, and being the most literate jurisdiction in North America. Adult basic education also has a strong social justice component, addressing social inequality and increasing economic stability for historically marginalized groups.
Public education from K-12 is free in Canada, as for several generations governments everywhere have understood it as the foundation for a strong economy and society.
In 2002, the BC government allowed post-secondary institutions to charge tuition fees for basic education courses to adults who have a certificate of high school graduation. Under pressure from students, this decision was wisely reversed in 2007.
Since that time, operating budgets for BC’s colleges and universities have been more or less frozen, making it difficult for institutions to maintain free ABE offerings to meet demand. In response, some institutions have limited adult basic education enrolment (e.g. Thompson Rivers University) or re-classified several high school credits as university transfer courses in order to charge tuition fees (e.g. Camosun College).
Restrictive Income Assistance Policy
In 2002, the BC government changed income assistance rules to disallow those on income assistance (with the exception of those with disabilities) from attending post-secondary education. This includes adult basic education.
The change was made as part of the government’s focus on reducing income assistance recipients by focusing on having them secure immediate employment. This strategy neglects the importance of meaningful training and skills development to the acquisition of sustained and adequate employment.
In light of the trend towards a knowledge-based economy in BC, there is a strong economic argument to be made for encouraging individuals on income assistance to enrol in adult basic education, and post-secondary education and skills training. The government’s current income assistance policy does the exact opposite.
BC is facing a major skills shortage as “baby boomers” retire and the economy transitions to a knowledge based economy. Presently, 70-75% of all new jobs require some form of post-secondary education, and in the coming years, the gap between the number of people entering the labour force and those retiring will continue to increase.
Government policies that restrict access for income assistance recipients and allowing some institutions to charge fees for adult basic education directly contribute to this shortage. Reducing access to high school completion or upgrading for the purpose of re-training threatens the supply of new participants in BC’s skilled trade programs.
The 2007 BC Budget and related documents indicate that 36% of adults in BC are illiterate. This includes functionality in a variety of areas, such as reading, writing, computer skills, and numeracy. Adult basic education impacts all of these areas. Financial barriers to adult basic education inhibits the reduction of adult illiteracy.
Low Completion Rates
Completion rates for adult basic education have been identified as an area of concern by the government. 30% of adult basic education students leave their studies before completing.(5)
Counter-intuitively, some college administrators have stated that charging tuition fees provides an incentive to complete, arguing that many students will not take their classes seriously, otherwise.
In fact, many students do not complete because of the financial burden of taking courses.
A truly effective solution to low completion rates is to eliminate the barriers to accessing adult basic education, including tuition fees, and develop positive incentives that encourage completion and the pursuit of post-secondary education.
BC’s post-secondary education system experienced falling enrolment when tuition fees were implemented in 2002. In 2006, the Ministry of Advanced Education published a comprehensive survey of adult basic education participants. The survey asked students who had planned to take more courses, why they were not currently taking them. About 19% cited lack of financial resources, 17-25% cited the decision to work, and 15-18% cited personal circumstances, which included circumstances such as lack of childcare.(6) Of course, all three of these choices are inextricably linked to financial resources.
The re-introduction of free adult basic education in 2007 helped to reduce financial barriers. However, the BC government’s unwillingness to address funding gaps in the system is threatening to undo these gains.
Adult basic education has a profound affect on the individuals who need to access it. Overwhelmingly, adult basic education students credit their courses with developing their literacy, numeracy, and computer skills, as well as self-confidence and social skills. It is an important component of addressing socio-economic marginalisation and building a skilled workforce.
The BC government made an important decision in 2007 to re-introduce free adult basic education. But in order to capitalize on this policy, the government should provide adequate funding to sustain a comprehensive adult basic education system with the necessary support services. Further, the no fee policy should be strengthened by eliminating income assistance policies that restrict access to education.