Community Colleges and Adult Schools, How They Work and Who Does What, Part 3: Who’s Doing What

So we have these three types of adult education programs: community college credit, community college non-credit and adult schools. How is the work of educating California’s adults actually divided among them? The 2012 Legislative Analyst’s Office report, “Restructuring California’s Adult Education System” has some valuable information about this on Page 11. The entire report can be viewed at

Community colleges provide more adult education than adult schools ONLY if credit programs are counted as “adult education”; If community college credit and noncredit programs, as well as adult schools, are counted as “adult education”, community college credit courses provide 52% of adult education services in California. The LAO report defines the adult education system in California as adult schools and community colleges, including both community college credit and noncredit programs in its analysis. However, it is worth remembering that, community college credit programs are actually college. Arguably, an analysis of adult education that includes community college credit programs could also include the state colleges and the university system, which also educate people over the age of 18. It is probably because community college credit programs are part of a system that is accessible to all adults that they are considered “adult education”. They are, however, comparable to the first two years of a college or university education, and are a gateway to the four year systems. In this respect, they are very different from both community college noncredit programs and adult schools.

Figure 3 on Page 11 of the LAO report is entitled “Community Colleges Provide More Adult Education than Adult Schools.” However, this is true only if credit programs are included. If you put community college credit, community college non-credit and adult school programs together in one big education pie, community college credit programs, at 52%, are clearly the biggest piece. Then, if you add community college non-credit to that at 14% , community colleges can claim a whopping 66% share of the adult education pie, as compared to 34% for adult schools.

Adult schools provide 34% of adult education in California (if community college credit courses are counted as “adult education”) ; noncredit community college programs provide 14% of adult education. Community college credit programs actually do something very different from what both community college noncredit programs and adult schools do. The more meaningful comparison is between community college noncredit and adult school programs. If you break it down that way, community college noncredit programs, at 14%, are the smallest piece of the adult education pie, while adult schools, at 34%, are second only to community college credit programs in terms of size, and, of the two types of programs providing the noncredit/adult school type of program, are by far the largest, more than twice the size of community college noncredit programs.

The three largest instructional areas are Vocational Education, English as a Second Language and Adult Basic and Secondary Education. Another instructive chart on page 11 of the LAO report shows how the work is divided up among community college credit, community college noncredit, and adult school programs. Figure 4, entitled “Adult Education is Concentrated in Three Instructional Areas” shows that vocational education, English as a Second Language (ESL), and Elementary and Secondary Education make up the bulk of the instruction for adults in California. In fact, the chart indicates that these three areas,  each serving about 140,000 Full Time Equivalent (FTE) students  in 2009-2010, are much larger than the fourth place program, Health and Safety, which served about 60,000 FTE students, almost all of them in community college credit programs.

Community college credit programs provide most Vocational Education for adults. The chart shows that the vast majority of vocational education takes place in community college credit programs, which served about 110,000 FTE students in 2009-10. It’s hard to tell what the LAO included as community college credit vocational education. In a certain sense almost all credit programs could be considered vocational, since they are designed to lead to a degree that would qualify students for careers. However, a note to the chart indicates that the definition was not that broad, stating that the number is based on “the LAO assessment of which credit vocational courses reflect adult education”, whatever that means. The note states specifically that apprenticeship programs were included, which makes sense.

Adult schools trail community college credit programs in vocational education substantially, at about 20,000 FTE for the 2009-2010 year. As noted in the previous installment of this series, almost all adult school vocational education is delivered by way of the community interest program, and is supported by student fees. Community college noncredit vocational education programs were even smaller than adult school programs, at about 10,000 FTE.

Adult schools provide most ESL instruction. The proportions are reversed for ESL, the next largest program, serving a little over 140,000 FTE students per year. Adult school ESL programs account for 85,000 FTE students, more than community college credit and non-credit programs combined. Community college noncredit provides the next largest program, at 35,000 FTE, and for credit ESL accounts for about 20,000 FTE.

Community College Credit programs provide somewhat more Adult Elementary and Secondary Education than adult schools. In the area of Elementary and Secondary Education for adults, community college credit programs and adult school programs are more evenly split, with adult schools providing Elementary and Secondary Education to about 60,000 FTE students in 2009-10 while community college credit programs provided instruction to about 85,000 FTE students and community college noncredit programs served about 10,000 FTE students.

It is a little surprising to see that community colleges provide more elementary and secondary education than adult schools, since most adult schools have programs that allow students over the age of 18 to complete the high school diploma. Elementary and Secondary Education in community college credit classes probably represents remedial classes for students who need to gain basic skills in order to pass classes leading to the AA degree. It isn’t clear where high school equivalency programs, such as GED, fit into this picture, if they do at all.

Adult School Figures In the LAO Report Were Probably Under Reported

The LAO report also notes that the totals for adult schools were under reported in all areas. The year 2012, when the LAO came out, was a low-watermark for California’s adult schools, and some no longer bothered to keep or report records on student attendance.

Community College Noncredit Figures May Have Been Somewhat Lower than Pre-2008 Figures

While the LAO report does not state this, the figures for community college noncredit programs may also be low. Community colleges noncredit programs suffered during the financial crisis of 2008, as community colleges either cut back or even eliminated their noncredit programs due to budget cuts.

Some Conclusions

  1. The LAO report does not demonstrate much “overlap” between community colleges and adult schools. A concern that there is “overlap” or duplication of effort between community colleges and adult schools is one of the driving forces behind proposals to reform the adult education system, including the AB86 Regional Consortium process. Governor Brown even proposed to eliminate adult schools in 2013 because of this supposed overlap. The LAO report mentions “overlap” as an issue, but the breakdown on page 11 of the report does not show much overlap at all. Instead, it suggests that a division of labor between adult schools and community colleges has already naturally evolved, and that the consortia will work best if they plan to build on the division of labor that already exists, rather than reinventing the wheel.

While community college credit programs provide the largest percentage of adult education as defined by the LAO report, there is virtually no overlap between community college credit programs and adult schools. Community college credit programs provide the first two years of college. If community college credit programs overlap with adult school programs, so do the freshman and sophomore years at a U.C. or state college, and of course no one is suggesting that.

  1. Adult schools provide the bulk of adult education that is not for community college credit in the state, and need dedicated funding to assure that they can continue their work.  If there is any overlap between adult schools and community colleges, it would be between adult school and noncredit community college programs. Community college noncredit programs and adult schools share a model that was developed to serve low literacy, low income adults, and does it well. It should be noted that the model was developed by adult schools, which predate community colleges by many decades. The LAO report states that adult school and noncredit community college programs achieve similar results for their students, so community college noncredit programs also do a good job of delivering this model.

However, the LAO report shows that noncredit community college programs provide much less adult education that adult schools do, with the few extensive noncredit programs confined to certain localities. Community college noncredit programs provide only 14% of the adult education services in the state, as compared to 34% for adult schools. When you factor in the fact that there are a few areas like San Francisco and San Diego, where adult schools are supplanted by a large noncredit community college program, overlap between community colleges and adult schools within any given area has got to be minimal. In most areas of the state, not for credit adult education is provided mostly by adult schools; in six areas, it is provided entirely by noncredit community college programs. The fact that a community college in San Francisco provides all the not-for-credit adult education in that city does not mean that adult schools in the East Bay, which provide almost all the not-for-credit adult education in that area, duplicate San Francisco. They serve a completely different student population.

For some, the fact that six California cities have eliminated their adult schools and provide all not-for-credit adult education through their community colleges means that the rest of the state should follow suit. Proponents of this plan (like Governor Brown) don’t ever seem to stop to wonder why, if this is really such a great idea, it hasn’t already happened. Most of the districts that converted to an all-noncredit community college model did so a long time ago; San Francisco converted in the late 1960s. There has been plenty of time for the rest of the state to look at how this model works and decide to try it, and they haven’t. It can’t be that adult schools are so politically powerful that they have consistently been able to block a smart move; adult schools have been less politically powerful than community colleges since the two systems were separated. Could it be that what is now called the “dual delivery” model (community college and adult school), works well in most communities, and they see no reason to change? The LAO recommended that the “dual delivery” model be maintained, and noted that adult school and noncredit community college programs achieve similar results for their students.

All in all, it seems strange to suggest that all the 300 California districts that still have adult schools should drop what they are currently doing and convert to a model that has been adopted by six mostly large, urban districts. The all-community college model seems to work fine in the areas where it has been adopted, which have had many years to adjust and refine it. But that doesn’t mean that a wholesale conversion of 300 districts to an all-community college model (as Governor Brown proposed in 2013) would work well at all. In fact, it had the potential to be a train wreck. It is erroneous to assume that administrators at community colleges that do not currently have noncredit programs (and there are many such community colleges) would automatically know how to run a noncredit program, much less start one from scratch.

The governor’s plan of immediate conversion to an all-community college system has been supplanted by the AB 86 Regional Consortium process, which will supposedly maintain the dual delivery system of adult schools and community colleges. However, the original plan for consortium funding was to have all the money come through the community colleges, with no dedicated funding for adult schools. Since adult schools provide the majority of not-for-credit adult education in the state, and have a proven track record of doing it at least as well as community college noncredit programs, the state needs to provide dedicated funding to make sure the expertise and infrastructure of adult schools are preserved.

While policy makers dithered about non-existent overlap, community colleges and adult schools together were only serving 20% of the adults in the state who needed literacy services. A 2009 WestEd report stated that, in that year, about 5.3 million adult Californians lacked a high school diploma or General Education Development (GED) certificate. About half of those 5.3 million adults, over 2.5 million, had educational attainments at below the 9th grade level. During the same year, according to the LAO report, adult schools and community colleges together served about 1.5 million students. The population of California has grown since 2009, and adult schools and community college noncredit programs have both shrunk. It’s time to stop worrying about overlap, and start worrying about the lack of services for adult Californians who need to improve their literacy.

  1. As the largest provider of English as a Second Language instruction, adult schools must be preserved as a vital resource for the state’s large immigrant population. The LAO report showed that adult schools provide, at 85,000 FTE students, far more English as a Second Language instruction than community college noncredit (about 35,000 FTE) and credit programs (about 20,000 FTE) combined. A state with a large and growing immigrant population needs to take note of this fact: adult schools have developed the infrastructure and expertise to serve the enormous numbers of adults in the state who need to learn English. The fact that noncredit community college programs are the second largest provider of ESL is also noteworthy. ESL is the one area in which noncredit programs are larger than for-credit programs. This indicates that the noncredit model works well for ESL students; which should come as no surprise, as the model was virtually created for them in the mid 19th Century. As the foremost provider of ESL in a state with a large immigrant population, adult schools need to be preserved as a valuable resource for ESL students. This is another reason that adult schools need dedicated funding.   Also, when it comes to providing ESL instruction, adult schools and noncredit community college programs are the experts. They provide much more ESL instruction than for-credit community college ESL programs, and hopefully for-credit ESL programs will be willing to listen to them and learn from them through the consortium process.


And a Question

What are the differences between Adult Basic Education and Adult Secondary Education at the community college and adult school levels?

The LAO report does not say much about the distinctions between Adult Basic Education (the equivalent of an elementary school education for an adult) and Adult Secondary Education (the equivalent of high school for an adult) at the community college and adult school levels. The report does say that community college credit programs deliver a bit more Adult Basic Education (ABE) and Adult Secondary Education (ASE) instruction than adult schools. Noncredit community college programs deliver a very small amount of ABE and ASE, about only about 10,000 FTE.

One would suppose that for-credit ABE and ASE classes at a community college would be essentially remedial classes to help students gain the skills they need to succeed in their major. It would seem that students would not be able to earn a high school diploma by taking these classes; on the other hand, once they earn an AA degree, they don’t need a high school diploma to go on to college.

In adult school, students can actually earn a high school diploma. One would assume that the community colleges which have supplanted adult schools in their communities (like San Francisco) also offer a high school diploma through their noncredit programs, and that this accounts for the noncredit ABE and ASE students.

But this is all conjecture, because the LAO report doesn’t talk about it. One of the purposes of this series is to stimulate dialog, so I would greatly appreciate comments about the role of community colleges and adult schools in ABE and ASE. And where are the GED and other high school equivalency tests in all this? What happens at your school? What are the implications for the consortia and the future of adult school in the state? I look forward to hearing from you.

Next: The Differences May Surprise You! Some Differences between Adult Schools and Community Colleges You May Not Expect, and Why They Are Important



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