Improving Basic Skills

The Effects of Adult Education in Welfare-to-Work Programs

By Johannes Bos, Susan Scrivener, Jason Snipes, Gayle Hamilton

These analyses of how adult education works in the context of welfare-to-work programs were conducted for a large sample of welfare recipients who entered one of the 11 programs studied in the National Evaluation of Welfare-to-Work Strategies (NEWWS) without a high school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certificate. Thus, the findings do not generalize to welfare recipients who do have a high school diploma but who still may be served by HCD programs that provide more advanced levels of education and training. The types of adult education examined in the report encompass adult basic education (ABE) classes, programs preparing students for the GED exam, regular high school classes, and classes in English as a Second Language (ESL). Among these, ABE and GED preparation accounted for most of the adult education in the 11 mandatory welfare-to-work programs studied. These 11 programs operated in seven sites, and each program was operated under the federal FSA and its Job Opportunities and Basic Skills Training (JOBS) program. (Program intake for this study began in June 1991 and ended in December 1994; data presented cover June 1991 through December 1997. See the accompanying box for further information about this study and report.)

This chapter summarizes most, but not all, of the analyses presented as a collection of papers in this report, specifically addressing the following questions:

  • What are the characteristics of adult education providers in welfare-to-work programs? What are typical attendance patterns in these classes?
  • To what extent, and for whom, do welfare-to-work programs increase participation in adult education services and increase educational attainment and achievement?
  • Do education-focused welfare-to-work programs improve education outcomes?
  • What is the payoff to additional participation in adult education?
    How do education outcomes and milestones affect the employment outcomes and self-sufficiency of welfare recipients?
  • Among those who participate in adult education, who moves on from adult education to receive postsecondary education and training, and how does this contribute to their earnings and self-sufficiency?

The analyses in the report take a unique perspective on adult education, one that will be of interest to the adult education community as well as to those involved in welfare policy. First, our analyses reflect on the effectiveness of adult education services provided to a highly disadvantaged group of students: low-income, mostly jobless, single-parent women who lack a high school diploma or GED and are receiving welfare. This group represents a significant share of all adult education students. One study found that, in 1992, 22 percent of all new students in U.S. adult basic education, high school completion, and GED programs had received public assistance in the year before enrollment; about 11 percent of all new ESL students met this criterion. This same disadvantaged group is likely to be of increasing concern to welfare policymakers. Drastic reductions in welfare caseloads since their peak in 1994 are also changing the face of caseloads, which now increasingly consist of “hard-to-serve” recipients. It is likely that many of those left on the welfare rolls will lack an education credential and will have poor reading or math skills.

Second, the adult education programs studied and their effects on students reflect the fact that these programs operate within the context of welfare-to-work programs. Such programs provide other services, such as counseling, child care, job search assistance, and postsecondary education and training. Although many issues facing adult educators are essentially unrelated to the welfare status of the students they serve, the context of available supports, expectations, and requirements is different for those enrolled in adult education as part of a welfare-to-work program. Thus, the measured effects of these programs reflect not only the payoff to adult education but the effects of a larger package of services and requirements that included adult education. As part of such a package, the adult education provided could be strengthened to produce greater effects (for example, if students receive help with child care or transportation). However, the effects of adult education also could be weakened by other program components (for example, if program rules limit the time that students may be enrolled in adult education or if the program emphasizes a quick transition from welfare to work).

Third, for welfare recipients in our study, participation in adult education was mandatory. While “traditional” adult education students enroll on a voluntary basis and can therefore be presumed to be motivated to learn, such motivation may sometimes be lacking when students are compelled to participate by mandatory welfare-to-work programs. Like most other adult education students, those mandated to participate often have done poorly in school in the past and may be alienated from traditional educational institutions and modes of instruction. Unlike the voluntary, or traditional, students, however, students connected to a welfare-to-work program may initially be motivated to attend classes less by the desire to learn or to obtain a credential than by the need to comply with welfare-to-work program requirements in order to avoid reductions in their welfare grant.

Finally, in the context of welfare-to-work programs, adult education is viewed as an intermediate goal, not as an end in itself. Financial self-sufficiency of adult students and their families is the ultimate goal of these programs.

These factors have helped shape the analyses and interpretation of results in this report. However, one additional factor—one of importance to the adult education community—cannot be taken into account in this examination. The prevalence of learning disabilities among welfare recipients is estimated to be between 25 and 50 percent. As implemented during the study period and probably continuing into current operations, most programs did not assess welfare recipients for learning disabilities, which could affect the programs’ ability to address these disabilities, clients’ skill development in the programs, and clients’ subsequent labor market success.

Findings in Brief

Although the five chapters following this one use various analytical techniques and samples, taken as a whole they support the following broad conclusions about adult education in the NEWWS welfare-to-work programs serving those without a high school diploma or GED:

  • In providing services for welfare recipients, adult education programs generally did not adapt their curricula or teaching methods to fit the specific needs of this group of students.
  • Even when welfare recipients preferred not to enter adult education, welfare-to-work programs substantially increased their receipt of such education. There was no evidence that those who were mandated to participate (most of whom did not express a preference for adult education) benefited any less from their participation in terms of educational attainment and literacy or math gains than those who volunteered.
    On the whole, assignment to education-focused programs did not appear to have a substantial payoff for the welfare recipients in our study in terms of their education outcomes. Although the programs increased GED receipt, most participants did not earn a GED, and few experienced significant increases in their reading and math skills. Three-year impacts on earnings and welfare receipt in HCD programs were smaller than those experienced by welfare recipients in LFA programs.
  • Gains in reading skills appeared to vary with the length of time spent in the adult education programs. Stays shorter than a year (which the majority of participants in adult education had) did not improve reading skills measurably, whereas longer stays were associated with substantial gains, comparable - for this sample - to those associated with regular high school attendance.
  • Improvements in math skills were associated with shorter spells of adult education. After six months of adult education, most participants’ math skills no longer improved.
  • GED receipt also was associated with shorter spells of participation in adult education. Additional participation beyond six months did not increase GED receipt, possibly because most GED recipients were close to being able to pass a GED test when they entered the programs.
    Higher average levels of teachers’ experience and education in the adult education programs appeared to enhance the payoff to participation in adult education in terms of reading and math skills.
  • The welfare recipients who were most likely to get GED certificates and receive postsecondary services were those who had higher initial reading and math skills when they entered the welfare-to-work programs.
  • As students earned GEDs, increased basic skills, or subsequently participated in postsecondary programs, they appeared to have substantial benefits in terms of employment, earnings, and self-sufficiency.  However, relatively few adult education participants received a GED, increased their basic skills, or entered postsecondary programs.
  • Receipt of a GED credential was an important predictor of subsequent enrollment in postsecondary programs. Participants in basic education programs who went on to postsecondary education or training programs appeared to experience substantial benefits from them in terms of increased earnings and self-sufficiency.
Bos, Johannes, Susan Scrivener, Jason Snipes, and Gayle Hamilton. 2002. Improving Basic Skills. New York: MDRC.