One unusually hot April evening in Nashville, I began my reading and writing course by asking my students to free write for 15 minutes. Yvonne Littlepage is one of my brightest math students. She is a petite, older African-American women who, since being jumped while waiting for the bus, is now driven to each class by a relative. In her written reply to my one of my prompt questions about the resources my students have available at home, she wrote, “I have a computer but sometimes there is shooting, people out all night long and I just don’t know how to block these things out.” She is taking the HiSET exam to reach her goal of becoming a nurse.
I teach adult education twice per week for a regional nonprofit workforce development organization. That day, I asked my students to tell my why they wanted to earn an adult education diploma. I asked them to be honest with me about their challenges so that I could better foster an effective classroom — a classroom that not only teaches them the skills they need to pass the reading and writing components of the HiSET graduate equivalency exam, but also provides them with rhetorical devices as a platform for their powerful voices beyond the test.
On May 18, Workforce Essentials delivered the good news to me and my colleagues: We were awarded the grant we rely on to operate our adult education program in central and west Tennessee. Each year, we aim to graduate students from our program, which operates out of several local community colleges, community centers and my own location, the Goodwill Career Center. Students like Yvonne depend on this grant funding to attend classes that will directly impact the possibility of reaching her goal to become a nurse. But before we received news of our grant, my colleagues and students began to grow weary of our progress.
According to the Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies survey, about 21 million — or 15 percent — of working adults have low literacy skills. In the Department of Education 2018 Budget Request, the Trump administration acknowledged the need for adult education while proposing a $95 million budget cut for these programs, a request they claimed would provide “significant resources to support adult education while also maintaining the fiscal discipline necessary to support the President’s goal of increasing support for national security and public safety without adding to the Federal budget deficit.”
While adult education programming currently remains funded since Congress adjusted the final amount from the Trump Administration’s initial request, the proposed cuts and the implicit precedent they represent should alarm communities throughout the South and Appalachia.
The Appalachian Regional Commission reports that between 2011 and 2015, 85 percent of West Virginia’s adults graduated from high school and 19.2 percent had completed bachelor’s degrees. Compared to national averages of 86.7 percent high school completion and 29.8 percent bachelor’s completion, West Virginia is lagging behind the rest of the nation in university completion. Tennessee, where my organization is based, fares slightly better for undergraduate completion at 24.9 percent — a number that will surely only rise after Governor Bill Haslam passed legislation that makes community college free for Tennessee residents starting in the fall of 2018. But Appalachian states as a unit (though probably inflated by the inclusion of the state of New York in the definition of “Appalachia”) still steadily fall behind the rest of the country in bachelor’s degree completion at 22.6 percent.
These statistics matter if we claim to care about jobs and workforce development in the South and Greater Appalachia. Georgetown University’s Public Policy Institute estimates that by 2020, 65 percent of jobs will require postsecondary education. At the same time, approximately 21 million working-aged adults, or 15 percent of the labor force, have low literacy skills. Without bridging the gap between university completion and the number of adults with low literacy skills, the economic divide will surely only grow wider as new jobs that require some college become increasingly more prevalent and unavailable to many working adults with low literacy skills.
For an administration so hyperbolically focused on bringing jobs to the middle and lower classes and reducing “entitlements,” adult education should be a top priority. Students who complete an adult education program earn dramatically more money each year than those who do not, are less likely to receive government benefits, less likely to be in poverty, less impacted by incarceration, and have lower health care costs. Though the Trump administration cut funding from the entire Department of Education budget without much discretion, these proposed cuts set a precedent for future cuts to non-traditional educational opportunities and directly contradict any effort to revitalize — or uplift — our most vulnerable populations in Appalachia and beyond.
Cities such as Washington, D.C. have multiple resource centers that attempt to meet the demand for community-based adult education programming. But in rural counties where there might be obstacles to accessing the internet, social services, transportation or centers for educational services, where are these students — who have already slipped through the system’s cracks in multiple ways — going to turn to be qualified for the “Tremendous Job Growth” supposedly coming down the pike?
Even with these challenges, the biggest obstacle to education I see in my classroom is shame. Many of my students struggle to find transportation, childcare and time to study, but one of the biggest impediments to their success and my lesson plans is overcoming the adult’s sense of shame. Often, my students are ashamed that they don’t understand a topic that their children already learned in school, or they will sit quietly when I ask if they have questions out of fear of asking something “dumb.” If a question does arise, it is almost always prefaced with the phrase “this might be a stupid question, but …” Nancy Isenberg succinctly describes the role of shame in class constructs in her 2016 bestseller White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America when she says “It’s shame that keeps the class system in place.”
Reducing the budget and, in effect, how highly we as a country value pumping resources into adult education, only works to significantly further engrain the culture of shame that my students will have to overcome. Rather than taking classes at a community center with a culturally sensitive teacher from your hometown, the future of adult education — particularly in rural areas — could look like a degree from an online for-profit school. And the smallest structural investment in workforce development will always result in the smallest gains in opportunity at the highest profit margin.
The future of adult education might shift toward privatization. Following Betsy DeVos’ vision for education, adult education programs seem to be on the route to a greater push toward management through independent companies that profit off the poor, such as for-profit online schools. In a publication by Policy Matters Ohio, Hannah Halbert analyzes the destabilizing predation on the poor by for-profit colleges which, she notes, “incentivizes enrollment in programs that will likely add to already disadvantaged students’ burden.” In one study, only 81 percent of adults in for-profit college programs had a high school diploma.
While Workforce Essentials was awarded our programming funding this grant cycle, we were well aware that our program hinges on grant funding. If we were not awarded the grant then we would no longer offer adult education classes and presumably would send our current students to another organization with funding. By streamlining programs like mine — which are designed to transition students into a higher paying job or community college — the budget request ultimately places another strain on students who face significant obstacles to attend at all.
With a growing shift to “modernize” industries in Greater Appalachia, and the behemoth of coal mining in Central Appalachia all but defunct, the need for an educated workforce has never been greater. Time and again, teachers, administrators and students discover that community-based alternative programs work. With the increased likelihood that these programs might not have their grants renewed in the future under the Department of Education’s privatization agenda, adult students will either go underserved, ungraduated or worse — indebted to a for-profit online school.
Rachel Bryan (@harl0tt) is a writer in Nashville and an English Ph.D. student at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. Her research focuses on poverty and the working class in Southern literature. Her selected essays can be found here.