Adult education in Colorado could get a leg up with a new bipartisan bill
Colorado currently funds adult education at one of the lowest per-pupil rates in the country
Colorado’s adult education system is severely lacking, a problem that a Senate bill is attempting to remedy in the 2023 legislative session.
Not only was the state late to the game in terms of providing any state-level funding to adult education — it was the 50th state to do so in 2014 — but it funds it at one of the lowest per-pupil rates in the country. In the 2020-21 year, the state spent $7 per eligible adult.
The consequence is that an estimated 300,000 adults in Colorado are lacking a high school diploma or equivalent, according to the Colorado Adult Education Coalition.
Having a high school diploma or an equivalent not only increases career opportunities but earning potential as well. In the state, an adult with a high school diploma or equivalent earns an average of $9,620 more per year than a non-graduate, the Coalition reported.
“We’ve got anywhere from 500,000 to 600,000 people in our state who either lack a high school equivalency or who have limited English proficiency, and our current state funding basically funds fewer than 1,000 people a year,” said Paula Schriefer, president and CEO of the Spring Institute, a provider and advocate for adult education in the state. “There’s just enormous need, and we’re such an outlier compared to other states.”
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Among the first ten Senate bills introduced this legislative session is one bipartisan bill aimed at bringing about meaningful changes to adult education in the state.
“Colorado ranks among the lowest in the country on spending for adult education,” said Dwenna Holden, the program director of English language acquisition, high school equivalency and career technical education prep at Colorado Mountain College. “Support like this will benefit Colorado’s adult student population, especially those who have been historically excluded along with Colorado’s amazing immigrant population.”
As proposed, Senate Bill 7 would add $2 million in annual state funding, streamline reporting requirements, enhance focus on digital literacy and skills for adult educators as well as allow community, technical and local colleges to grant high school diplomas (something currently only K-12 school districts can do in the state). This bill unanimously cleared the Senate Education Committee at the end of January and offers several benefits.
The state of adult education funding
Colorado first started providing state-level funding to adult education providers in 2014, which Schriefer said is a “tiny pot” that equates to less than $1 million per year. According to the Colorado Department of Education, in the 2022-23 fiscal year, approximately $650000 is estimated to be available. Providers have to apply to receive these funds each year, which are provided as grants by the state.
Additionally, there is federal funding, which serves as “the main source for adult education in the state of Colorado,” Schriefer said, adding that in 2020 it received a little over $7 million in federal funding.
Similarly, these funds are distributed to providers on a competitive basis and allows providers to offer their classes at free or reduced rates to the individuals who need them, Schriefer said.
In addition to funding adult education at one of the lowest rates, Colorado is also one of the only states that does not provide cash matching to these federal funds.
“All of the providers, they bring to the table matching funding, which is required for our state to receive those federal funds, but the state doesn’t put anything toward it,” Schriefer said.
According to Schriefer, there had been a 2020 proposal to increase funding for adult education and expand the scope of programming. The budget increase, however, was delayed as a result of the pandemic, which is why legislators are bringing forth this 2023 bill.
“This year, the point of the bill is to primarily try to expand the permanent state funding for adult education in the state, and hopefully, at least double that,” Schriefer said.
As proposed, the bill would add $2 million in annual funding to state education.
For Colorado Mountain College, Holden said that additional financial allocations could allow the school to continue offering grant-funded tuition coverage as well as provide educational materials like textbooks and test fees, depending on what amount is actually allocated.
High school equivalencies vs. diplomas
Colorado’s State Board of Education currently accepts two tests for high school equivalency diplomas: the GED (or General Education Development) test or the HiSET (or High School Equivalency Test).
This is instead of the “traditional” high school diploma, which is issued by a high school and based on the Colorado Department of Education’s graduation requirements.
Both are similar in that colleges, universities, and employers will accept them as “indication of the completion of a high school education,” Holden said.
Currently, only K-12 institutions have the authority to issue a high school diploma. However, one of the proposed changes in the Senate bill is that community colleges, area technical colleges, and local district colleges will be able to develop their own minimum graduation requirements for a high school diploma (based on state graduation guidelines).
“Allowing colleges that run Adult High School Diploma programs to issue their own diplomas would streamline the process for colleges as well as provide students with a more efficient way accessing their student records,” Holden said.
Colleges, including Colorado Mountain College, were able to begin offering a high school diploma curriculum thanks to a pilot program that the state started in 2019. The pilot, Holden said, allowed adult educators to partner with K-12 school districts to issue adult education instruction and high school diplomas for graduates.
Colorado Mountain College partnered with the Roaring Fork School District on this pilot program as it ended on June 30, 2022, and then through the present day after the state department allowed the colleges to continue running the curriculum, with the school district as the diploma issuing authority.
For students, the benefit of the bill’s proposed changes is that their records would be housed in one (rather than two) institutions. And for the colleges, it would enhance its program stability, consistency and reliability because they wouldn’t have to “rely on external partnerships that are vulnerable to changes with shifts in leadership,” Holden said.
Additional benefits for both parties at Colorado Mountain Colleges, she added, include realistic time frames, cost-effectiveness, advancement opportunities in the workforce and the ability to easily transition into the college’s varied and engaging credit programming.
And while to employers and higher education institutions, equivalency versus diploma doesn’t necessarily matter, there are some valuable differences to adult learners. First, is time and cost, Holden said.
“The AHSD (Adult High School Diploma) offers a pathway that costs less than a GED and takes less time than a GED. An AHSD can typically be finished in one semester versus multiple semesters for a GED. The AHSD can cost about $100 versus closer to $300 or more for the GED,” she said.
Plus, the adult high school diploma can be more accessible and flexible to a student’s needs.
The adult high school diploma programs, Holden said, are “competency-based and contain curriculum that is based more in real-life connections,” which makes it more accessible for students who stopped school earlier in life. Which, of the estimated 3,000 Coloradans without a high school credential, 41% have less than a ninth-grade education.
While the state’s adult education providers certainly provide access to classes and pathways to achieve these equivalencies, they also help with additional skills obtainment and education. For many providers, Schriefer said this includes English language acquisition as well as citizenship preparation.
The bill proposes some other improvements to the overall adult education system, but one that is emphasized is the addition of digital literacy to the scope of “basic education offered to eligible adults,” according to the bill text.
This, Holden said “only stands to benefit students.”
“Acquiring those skills will allow people to access all kinds of opportunities, resources, and relationships that they otherwise would not have access to without digital literacy,” she added.
It’s a skill set that became even more critical in the advent of the pandemic, Schriefer said.
“All of the adult education providers throughout the state essentially had to immediately focus on digital literacy when COVID hit and all of our classes went virtual,” she said. “We realized that not only does a lot of our adult learner population not have the necessary equipment — computers, laptops, smartphones or reliable internet access — many of them also didn’t have basic skills of how to take a class through Google Meet, Zoom, etc.”
Adding this language, Schriefer said is just “recognizing that this needs to be a part of formal adult education.”