Community Colleges and Adult Schools, How They Work and Who Does What, Part 4: The Differences May Surprise You–How Immigration, Parking, Standardized Testing and More Affect Adult Schools and Community Colleges

Adult schools are school, and community colleges are college. This may seem so simple it shouldn’t even have to be stated, but it plays out in surprising ways. Because one is part of the K-12 school system and the other is an institution of higher learning, adult schools and community colleges interact very differently with the immigration system, have different approaches for making education affordable for low income students, and are even differently distributed throughout the state. On March 1, comprehensive plans are due from the AB86 consortia. The plans must address such issues as curriculum alignment and gaps in service. Yet if the plans fail to address some fundamental differences between community colleges and adult schools that arise from the fact that one is college and the other is school, they may not serve their regions as well as they otherwise might. An analysis of the most significant differences and their potential affect on students follows.


Distribution: The ratio of adult schools to community colleges is over 3:1. Even after the ravages of budget cuts and closings, there are still about 316 adult schools to 112 community colleges in California. Like elementary schools, middle schools and high schools, adult schools are more widespread than community colleges. Like other institutions of higher learning, community colleges have to be located in an area with enough population to support them, while adult schools are part of school districts. Since universal education is mandatory for children in the United States, every place in California belongs to a school district. Adult schools grew up alongside elementary and high schools, and, like them, are part of the ideal of universal public education. Not every school district has an adult school, to be sure, but many do, and even in districts that don’t have them, the infrastructure to create one is there.

Community colleges are centers of learning, attracting students from other parts of the state and even other countries. While it is probably true that community college students are more likely than state college or university students to live at home, students, at least younger, “college age” ones, still go away to community college, relocating long distances primarily for the purpose of attending school and getting a degree. Like other institutions of higher learning, community colleges even attract foreign students who want to study in the U.S. Many community colleges have staff, services and programs dedicated to meeting the needs of, and even recruiting, foreign students. Because community colleges have two fee structures, one for California residents and another, much higher fee structure for out-of-state students, foreign students can be a lucrative source of income for community colleges.

Since they are centers of learning, like other institutions of higher learning, community colleges are set up for students whose primary aim is to attain an education. They work well for students who already understand what higher education can do for them, feel confident they can attain a degree, and are able to reorganize their lives to make school a priority.

Adult schools are rooted in community. Nobody goes away to adult school. Adult schools, like elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools, serve a local population. Foreigners visiting the U.S. for other reasons might discover an adult school and take classes there, but no one comes to the U.S. from another country in order to attend adult school. Adult schools have only one fee structure; students from out of state or out of the country pay the same as other students to take classes.

Adult schools are specifically designed to fit into the lives of busy adults who already have pressing work and family responsibilities. They are an excellent starting point for students who have had little experience with formal education (usually immigrants), students who have had bad experiences with school in the past, and students with low literacy skills. Students with limited access to transportation may still be able to access an adult school class, as adult school classes are usually conveniently located in the community, often in elementary schools, churches, or community based organizations. Anyone who may be tentative or need to get acclimatized to academic work is likely to do better at an adult school setting, at least at first. Some adult school students will want to go on to community college eventually. Others may be content to learn the English they need to do better at their jobs or help their children in school, or to get the GED or high school diploma they need to get a better job or keep the one they have.

Community college noncredit programs sometimes resemble adult school programs in being widely dispersed throughout the service area and embedded in the community, but according to an extensive study of the adult education system conducted by the Legislative Analyst’s Office (LAO), noncredit community college programs provide only 14% of the adult education instruction in California, and there are only six community colleges with large noncredit programs, most of them are in Southern California. (LAO Report: “ Restructuring California’s Adult Education System”, pages 11-12).


Community colleges have the right to charge for parking. The power to collect fees for parking is actually spelled out in the legislation that creates the community college system.

Adult schools don’t charge for parking, any more than an elementary school or high school does.

This may seem like a small thing, but parking fees can be a barrier for some low-income students. As consortia contemplate strategies like co-location of classes, the effect of parking fees will need to be considered. In the district where I work, the adult school was running a GED preparation class in Spanish on the community college campus. Since our area has a large Spanish-speaking population, this class should have been bursting at the seams, but instead it languished with low enrollment until it was moved to a middle school campus where parking is free.


Adult schools support K-12 schools. Adult schools help fulfill the state’s commitment to a basic education for all by offering the equivalent of a primary and secondary education to adults who, for whatever reason, did not complete a basic education as children. This includes offering basic literacy in English to adult immigrants, as well as Adult Basic Education that is the equivalent of an elementary education for adults. Adult schools also offer high school diploma programs and high school equivalency testing for adults who want to complete a secondary education. Adult schools round out the mission of the K-12 schools by raising literacy rates for California’s adults.

Adult schools also support the success of children in the K-12 system through Family Literacy and Parent Education programs . These programs develop the skills of parents so they can help their children in school.

Adult schools do prepare many students to enter community college. But they also have an important role to play in assisting the K-12 schools.

Community colleges provide higher education. The mission of the community colleges is to give students the training they need to earn degrees and transfer to four year institutions. They may offer basic education services to help their students develop the skills they need to do college-level work, but that is not their mission.


Adult schools and community colleges interact with the immigration system in very different ways.

Adult schools are prohibited by law from inquiring about student immigration status. A U.S Supreme Court case, Plyler vs. Doe, established that children living in the U.S. cannot be denied a free education based on immigration status. The relevance of this case for California schools was reaffirmed in the case of League of United Latino Citizens v. Wilson, which struck down provisions of Proposition 187 that would have limited school access for undocumented children in the state.

Because they are part of the K-12 system, California adult schools do not inquire about the immigration status of their students, even though their students are adults. As part of K-12 districts, adult schools are subject to the same legal requirements as other K-12 schools, so that undocumented adult school students have some protection under Plyler.

Community colleges can inquire about student immigration status, and often charge students without documentation out-of-state fees, which are too expensive for many. Because they are not part of the K-12 system, community colleges are not subject to Plyler. They can inquire about immigration status, and many do, as part of the application process. Students are not turned away for lack of documentation, but immigrant students without documents (either a green card or naturalized citizenship status) are classified as out-of-state students and required to pay much higher out-of-state fees, no matter how long they have been living (and often working and paying taxes) in California. These higher fees are an insurmountable barrier to most undocumented students.

Community college non-credit programs are more accessible for undocumented immigrants than credit programs. Community college non-credit programs are currently offered free of charge, so undocumented immigrants who live in areas where the community college has a non-credit program can usually access those classes. Even in non-credit classes, however, undocumented immigrants do not have any legal protection against being asked about their status as they do in adult schools.

Foreign students can attain an F-1 student visa in order to study at a community college, but not an adult school. This is another way that adult schools and community colleges interact differently with the immigration system. Since community colleges are institutions of higher learning, students can apply for an F-1 student visa based on their community college attendance. An F-1 visa grants an immigrant the right to live legally in the U.S. for the purpose of attending school (but usually not working, with a few exceptions). Adult school attendance cannot qualify a student for an F-1 visa.


Community colleges are designed to appeal to young adults. Community college campuses feel like any other college campus. They have a young vibe. On a community college campus, you will be surrounded by students in their late teens and twenties. As on any college campus, there will be some older students, but they will be in the minority. College sponsored social activities are more likely to appeal to young people. There may be a sports program for college athletes, not just opportunities for physical education and exercise. Posters and messages you see are likely to be aimed at youth, with messages about getting your life together and planning for the future.

Adult schools serve a broader age range, and are designed to appeal to all ages. At an adult school campus, you will be surrounded by students of all ages. Any messages on the walls are likely to be appropriate for all ages. There will probably be a photo of the most recent High School Diploma graduation deliberately showing that the students who graduated were of different ages; in fact, if someone with grey hair graduated, they will probably be front and center, to show that anyone can do it, regardless of age. There are health and fitness classes, but no competitive sports programs. Any social activities are likely to be holiday parties or international days that appeal to all ages. Adult school catalogs show photos of students of different ages participating in class activities.

These may seem like superficial and unimportant differences, but they can have a significant effect on how comfortable some students feel in the adult school versus the community college environment.


Like other institutions of higher learning, community colleges offer financial aid. Community colleges are certainly the most inexpensive option for students seeking higher education, but they can still be quite expensive. While course fees are very low compared to state colleges and universities, there are other expenses like books and parking fees. There are also living expenses for those students who want to work less than full time in order to concentrate more on their studies. Like other institutions of higher learning, community colleges offer financial aid for qualifying students. There are also fee waivers for some low income students.

Most adult schools are not set up to offer financial aid, and only some offer fee waivers. There is no such thing as a full time adult school student. Adult schools are designed for students who need to fit in their classes around other adult responsibilities like full-time work and raising a family. For this reason, adult schools lack services designed to help students stay in school full time or almost full time, like financial aid.

However, adult school classes are, as a rule, even more inexpensive than community college classes. More importantly, until 2008 the adult school classes that help students develop basic literacy skills, such as ESL, Adult Basic Education and High School Diploma, were required by law to be offered free. Students could not be required to buy books or materials for these courses, so even very low income students were able to access basic literacy classes.

That changed in 2008, when most of the laws governing adult schools were suspended, and school districts were allowed to use money previously earmarked for adult schools for any educational purpose. Adult schools started charging for some basic literacy classes in order to survive. Fees were instituted on an emergency basis, often hurriedly and with no time to set up ways to mitigate the effects of the fees for very low income students. Adult schools lack the infrastructure for financial aid, so that kind of assistance is not available. Some adult schools instituted fee waivers for low income students, but many did not, as they lacked the infrastructure to run a fee waiver program.

Community college non-credit courses must still be offered free by law, so students who live near a community college with a non-credit program may still be able to access free basic literacy classes there.


Most adult schools receive supplemental federal funding from the Workforce Investment Act (WIA), and WIA priorities have a substantial effect on adult school programs. Workforce Investment Act money is available to adult schools, and most adult schools have applied for and received WIA grants. As school districts began to flex adult school money to use for other purposes, adult schools came to rely even more on WIA money, though WIA money must always be supplemental, and can never be used as the only money to run an adult school program. Nonetheless, WIA funds are one of the few additional funds available to adult schools, and adult schools put considerable resources into meeting WIA requirements.

WIA is a pay for performance program; most of the funding is based on student performance on a standardized test, CASAS. Adult schools receive a certain amount each time a student shows a certain amount of progress on the test, as long as all the record keeping on the student is complete. The CASAS test is a life skills test; it tests how well students can answer either oral (the Listening test) or written (the Reading test) questions related to everyday life and work. The CASAS test is given to students in ESL, Adult Basic Education, and Adult Secondary Education (High School Diploma) classes. It does not test grammar or academic subjects. Most of the questions test the kind of skills that are needed to read a calendar, map or bus schedule, fill out a job application, or understand a work schedule.

So while adult schools are being asked to dovetail more closely with the academic curriculum of the community college, the Workforce Investment Act funding and CASAS test pull them more in the direction of life skills. This is not all a bad thing.   You have to walk before you can run, and adult literacy students often benefit greatly from the life skills orientation of adult school classes. However, the conflicting demands of the consortia and the federal Workforce Investment Act do create some tension for adult schools.


Now that we have examined some key differences between adult schools and community colleges, what are the implications for the consortia going forward?


  1. California needs to rebuild its lost adult education capacity. From 2008 to 2013, about 70 adult schools closed, many of them in rural or remote areas where no other educational option was available for adults. Rural and remote areas were underserved even before 2008; adult school closings and reductions of service in the past several years have exacerbated an already severe shortage.

In spite of the acute need to rebuild adult education services throughout the state, the consortia never had a clear mandate to do so. The closest thing to such a mandate was a requirement that consortia identify “gaps in service” in their area and make a plan to address the gaps. But it was left up to the consortia to define what a “gap” is; they did not necessarily have to look at geographical distribution of services at all. Instead, the consortia could simply look at gaps in the services they provided to the population they already served, and it is probable that many did that. After all, consortium planning took place between community colleges and surviving adult schools. The adult schools that closed, and the students who lost services, were not at the table. It would only be natural for community colleges and surviving adult schools to look at the needs of their current students.

Even if some consortia did make a plan to rebuild capacity, the roll out of the consortia, as currently planned, guarantees that the rebuilding will be very slow. Next year school districts will receive exactly the same amount they spent on their adult schools this year and last year. District budgets will be relieved of the necessity to spend general funds on the adult school as additional block grant money designated for adult schools only comes in. But there will be no money to rebuild. The idea of something akin to the Local Control Funding Formula for adult education, beginning in 2016-2017 school year, holds out some promise of rebuilding beginning at that time. As with K-12 schools, consortia would receive additional money for low income and English Learner students living in the consortium area. This additional money could be used to begin restoring services to areas that have lost them.

  1. The consortia must plan to serve students with little formal education, students who have had bad experiences with school in the past, and students with very low literacy. These are the students who need adult literacy services the most. The consortia need to build their plans around them and consider them among their most important clients. They should never be seen as “less than”, or annoying and hard to serve because they cannot or are reluctant to come to a community college campus for services. Adult schools and community college non-credit programs know how to serve these students, and their expertise should be respected.
  2. The consortia should keep the effect of parking fees in mind when planning where to offer a particular service. Co-location of classes is an excellent strategy, and certainly adult school students should be encouraged to attend events and classes at community colleges when possible so they can begin to visualize themselves transitioning to the college. But if attendance at a community college location is sparse, the consortium should consider relocating it to an adult school site where parking will be less of a barrier, at least as far as fees are concerned.


The consortia should keep in mind that adult schools serve a very valuable function when they support K-12 schools. The support adult schools provide for their districts should not be sacrificed in the quest to make them more supportive of the community colleges. Support for the K-12 school and support for the community college should be equally respected, and the consortia need to make sure adult schools have enough resources to do both well.


  1. The consortia should be aware of the legal protection undocumented students have in adult schools, and avoid doing anything to jeopardize that protection, like insisting that adult school students provide Social Security Numbers or other information that would reveal their immigration status. Any shared databases should be free of information that might reveal a student’s immigration status.
  2. Community colleges might consider finding a way for students to establish state residency that is not tied to immigration status. School districts are not allowed to inquire about immigration status, and they have found ways to establish residency in the district for children. If the community colleges could do the same, it would eliminate one of the chief frustrations of adult school/community college collaboration: the student who has been well prepared by the adult school to go on to community college, but who is prevented from going on because she lacks documentation and cannot pay the high out-of-state fees.


Mostly, the consortia should simply be aware of the different atmosphere at adult schools and community colleges. If community colleges want to attract more older adult school students, they could consider featuring some older students in catalogs and other promotion materials, as well as posting some messages and images that are more inclusive of them. Possibly some community colleges already are doing this.


The consortia need to think about ways both community college and adult school can be made more accessible for low income students. While financial aid for adult school students may not be a possibility, certainly fee waivers should be made consistent within each consortium and perhaps even across the state. Adult schools could adopt fee waiver policies as similar as possible to the policies of the community colleges in their consortium, and all adult schools within a consortium area should have the same policy, as should all community colleges, if there is more than one within a particular consortium area.

The state should also consider keeping community college non-credit classes free, and reinstating the laws requiring that basic literacy classes in adult schools (ESL, Adult Basic Education, High School Diploma, High School Equivalency Testing and Adults with Disabilities) be offered free.   This would return community college non-credit classes and adult school basic literacy classes to parity, and assure consistent policies for both. After all, the laws mandating that adult school basic literacy classes must be offered free of charge were suspended as an emergency measure; now that the emergency is past, the laws should be reinstated.

There have been rumblings here and there indicating that some in state government want to go the other way. They would like to institute charges for community college non-credit classes as well as keep charging for adult school basic literacy classes. This should be rejected as counter-productive; the consortia are tasked with taking down barriers for adults in need of educational services, not putting them up. Those most in need of literacy services are often those least able to pay, and the state needs to take this into account when it makes policy. To make charges for basic literacy classes permanent in adult schools, and institute charges in community college non-credit classes, is basically to abandon California’s constitutional commitment to a free basic education for all, and will ultimately weaken the state culturally and economically.


The consortia need to keep in mind that adult schools need to fulfill the requirements of the Workforce Investment Act in order to continue receiving much needed federal money. The consortia also need to consider the importance of life skills education for many adults, and make sure this need is met as well as the need for more academic preparation.





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