Published on 2013/04/08

Adult Education Research: Where’s the Money?

Adult Education Research: Where’s the Money?
To meet U.S. President Barack Obama's educational attainment goal of 60 percent by 2020, higher education institutions will need external support to conduct adult education research and develop their programs in response to the findings.

We’ve all heard about the need to educate vast numbers of adults in the United States in order to provide skilled workers and create economic growth. As recently as the summer of 2012, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan relayed to governors in a recent press release, “All told, the percentage of 25-34 year olds with some kind of postsecondary degree rose half a percentage point from 38.8 percent to 39.3 percent. America used to be No. 1 in the world for the percentage of adults with college degrees but has recently slid to 16th.  President Obama has called for America to increase the number of degree-holders to 60 percent by the end of the decade.”

U.S. higher education has increased the education of adults by half a percentage point toward a goal to increase the number of adults with college degrees by an additional 20.7 percent. At our current rate, it would take 40 years (until 2053) to reach the 60 percent goal. Clearly, we need to more effectively educate adults, particularly via online education, to provide the flexibility that many Americans need.

Support From American Foundations

Interestingly, major American foundations have contributed millions of dollars to innovative delivery platforms such as Coursera and Udacity. As a result, millions have enrolled in Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), with an average class size of about 50,000. Yet, according to a recent study by Katy Jordon, less than 10 percent of learners complete current MOOC courses, and the majority of completion rates are in the two to eight percent range. Does this sound like effective adult education? No higher education institution would be able to attract applicants if it posted attrition rates of 92 to 98 percent. One MOOC educator, Tucker Balch, argues that attrition is not an issue because learners have not paid for the MOOCs. I disagree. We have paid; we have all paid. These courses have cost us millions in foundation dollars that could have been applied to concentrated research on effective adult education. Some may argue this is the ultimate goal of MOOC investments. However, how long, and how many millions, will it take to move from less than 10 percent completion to those comparable to or better than traditional higher education? Will MOOCs ever reach this goal?

Government Support

It may seem that the federal government is funding adult education research, so foundation support is not necessary. Unfortunately, the evidence shows there are virtually no Department of Education (DoE) discretionary grants currently available to investigate effective adult education related to college degree attainment or skills certification. DoE Adult Education grants focus on literacy, general education development (GED) and remedial skills. While these are important areas, DoE seems to be ignoring research to meet the educational needs of the vast majority of adults — those learners attempting to attain college degrees or certification in new skill areas in order to enter or re-enter the educated and/or skilled workforce.

Where’s the Money?

Do we already know the most effective means to educate adults in the United States? While we have some evidence on adult learners’ needs and some understanding of their instructional preferences, few would argue that we have all of the answers. If we did, we would be able to increase adults with college degrees by more than half a percentage per year. If we did, MOOCs would not only draw tens of thousands of adult learners, but they would also guide those learners to successful course completion. Focused adult education research is needed to have any hope of attaining President Obama’s educational goal for 2020. Such investments were made in the past to prepare for war and for the space race, and we gained the long-term benefits of instructional design and technology. I believe we now need another infusion of research investment to turn pockets of adult education excellence into more universal success.

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Balch, T. (2013). About MOOC Completion Rates: The Importance of Student Investment. Retrieved from Posted on January 6, 2013.

Duncan, A. (2012). New State-by-State College Attainment Numbers Show Progress Toward 2020 Goal. Retrieved from

Jordan, K. (2013). MOOC Completion Rates: The Data. Retrieved from

United States Department of Education. (2013).  FY 2013 Discretionary Grant Competitions. Retrieved from

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Readers Comments

Tawna Regehr 2013/04/08 at 10:56 am

This article was the first time I’ve seen performance measurements for MOOCs. A two to eight percent completion rate is indeed highly problematic, as the author points out. As MOOC providers look to develop a sustainable business model, reducing attrition rates should be considered as one of their benchmarks. However, I’m afraid it won’t be, as MOOC providers seem to be solely interested in making a quick buck off of the hype without any real concern for education quality or improvement.

Kendra Willis 2013/04/08 at 12:11 pm

I agree with Jane Terpstra about the need to invest in education research in order to determine the best way to deal with adult students moving forward. However, with the economy the way it is and higher education funding at an all-time low, I’m not convinced we’ll be able to sell this idea to the federal government strictly on the basis that it’s good science.

What does Terpstra propose we do to turn funding for adult education research from a “nice to have” into a “need to have”?

    Jane Terpstra 2013/04/08 at 3:05 pm

    Assess the data and spread the word! Consider overall needs and priorities for adult education and write letters! Continue to ask questions about how we will attain the national goal for 60% of adults in the U.S. to be degree-holders. If this is truly a national priority, then funding must be prioritized as well.

Aaron Stark 2013/04/09 at 3:49 pm

Jane Terpstra does well to point out that we’ve invested in education design and research in the past, with great results. The issue is that one always has to be thinking of long-term benefits when considering higher education investment. It may seem to be too dear a cost at first, but it will be worth it when the country starts to meet its training and labor objectives in the future.

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