An expert in policy advocacy and coalition building, Chaer leads CCLP’s work to help people meet their basic needs and expand economic opportunity. She also coordinates the Skills2Compete Colorado Coaliton and serves on the executive committee of the All Families Deserve a Chance (AFDC) coalition. Staff page ›

Sep 29, 2016

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Adult education: The cornerstone of workforce development

by | Sep 29, 2016

There is nothing like a healthy economy to provide opportunities for those who might otherwise be overlooked in the job market. Yet, despite Colorado’s economic gains in recent years, employment and upward mobility remain challenging for those who don’t complete high school.

The 394,471 Coloradans (or 9.4 percent of the state’s population) without high school diplomas are much less likely to participate in the workforce than those with more education. In addition, those without a high school diploma have a 6.4 percent unemployment rate, versus 2.1 percent for those with a bachelor’s or advance degree.

Only 12 percent of jobs nationally are open to those who haven’t earned a high school diploma. Meanwhile, Colorado’s workforce tends to be highly educated, so competition can be fierce in this state and even more challenging for those who lack education.

Once on the job market, individuals without high school diplomas earn significantly less than their better-educated contemporaries. For example, average median wages are only $23,004 a year for those without high school diplomas, compared to $30,568 for high school graduates and $48,818 for college graduates.

Because education and training opportunities usually require a high school diploma or equivalency diploma, finding an upward-mobility path can also pose a serious challenge for many Coloradans. With the exception of a few approved career pathway training programs, Pell grants and other federal finance aid may not be available for community college or other post-secondary opportunities for students without high school diplomas.

The Federal Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (or AEFLA) provides over $7 million in funding to Colorado as part of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act.  A majority of adult education students under AEFLA are English language learners. This federal money requires a local match, but increasing any local or state funding does not enable Colorado to draw down more federal money.

Unlike some other states, Colorado does not subsidize high school equivalency exams, so students pay the bill. The cost of a GED is $150 for a GED, with part of the student fee paying for the state program overseeing high school equivalency exams. The high cost of the exam alone can discourage students who might pass from trying.

Fortunately, some recent policy developments provide glimmers of hope for those who may face barriers to employment due to their lack of education.

In 2014, Colorado became the last state to provide state funding for adult education with the passage of House Bill 1085, developed by the Skills2Compete Colorado Coalition led by CCLP.  Known as the Adult Education Workforce Partnerships bill, this legislation anticipated the passage of the Federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunities Act (or WIOA), which requires organization partners to work together to smooth the path from education to employment.

Workforce centers, vocational rehabilitation programs, adult education and even Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program are supposed to coordinate to help people find training and employment. HB 1085 provided $960,000 to develop partnerships to help adult education students get a high school equivalency diploma, job training and job placements.

But due to limited funding, obtaining grants under HB 1085 is an extremely competitive process. For example, in the initial cycle — just months after HB 1085 passed — 19 proposals were submitted and nine multi-year grants were funded. In the upcoming round this fall, even more proposals are expected.

Under WIOA, services for those with barriers to employment are supposed to be prioritized. Among the populations listed are “those with low basic skills,” which certainly includes those without high school diplomas.

Colorado is developing exciting workforce development programs in response to employer needs. Yet without additional “on-ramps” to career pathways through adult education, those without a high school degree will struggle to find a way for hard work to result in upward mobility.

Hopefully, as the economy improves, these highlighted policies and other initiatives will forge more opportunities for those who’ve struggled to gain a foothold in the job market in the past.

– Chaer Robert

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