top of page
  • Marcus J. Hopkins

Funding Failures in Adult Education

An image of the U.S. Capitol Building at sunset

By: Marcus J. Hopkins

February 27th, 2024

At the beginning of each year, the Appalachian Learning Initiative (APPLI, pronounced like "apply") works to update the data we collect on various measures of educational, health, and social well-being across Appalachia's 13 states, 423 counties, and 8 independent Virginia cities. This means ensuring that our data are current and seeking new data points and sources.

This year, as part of our increased attention to advocacy in state and federal adult education policy, we began examining federal funding for adult education through various funding mechanisms (e.g., bills and laws).

We have come to the following conclusion:

The United States has an adult education funding problem.

The majority of funding comes out of the Adult Education and Family Literacy Act (AEFLA), title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Secondary funds are awarded under Section 243 for WIOA for the Integrated English Literacy and Civics Educations (IELCE), which provides integrated English literacy and civics

education, in combination with integrated education and training activities, for English language learners—a much smaller pool of money.

These funds are appropriated through Congress and then allocated to the states through formula grants—funds that are determined based upon criteria established by each federal agency to determine how much each state receives for a specific grant. For example, when funds for the Housing Opportunities for Persons With HIV/AIDS (HOPWA) program are allocated, there is a formula to determine how much money each state receives that includes the number of people living with HIV in each jurisdiction. This formula also includes other factors, but that's the basic idea.

For the WIOA, this is the formula:

"Statutory Formula: Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (P.L. 113-128), Title II, Subtitle A, section 211(c). The statute requires the Department to make an initial allotment of $250,000 to each State and $100,000 to each Outlying Area, and to distribute remaining funds on the basis of each State’s share of qualifying adults. Qualifying adults are defined as individuals aged 16 and older who lack a high school diploma or the equivalent, who are beyond the age of compulsory education in their States, and who are not currently enrolled in school. The statute includes a “hold-harmless” provision ensuring that each State receives at least 90 percent of its previous year’s allocation. If funding is insufficient to satisfy the hold-harmless provision, each State receives the same proportion of available funding as in the previous year."

This formula means that the amount of funds allocated is not based upon any particular need that has to be met, such as the number of adults struggling to read, but is instead based upon whether or not someone has earned a high school diploma or equivalent degree (in this case, the General Education Development, or GED).

So, what does this mean in terms of dollars and cents?

In 2023, Congress allocated $715,455,000 toward the two formula grants, with $629,600,400 designated to address adult education and literacy activities and $85,854,600 for IELCE activities.

Below is the breakdown of what Appalachian states received (not specific to Appalachian counties):

Table 1 - Federal Funding Allocated Under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act, by State, Fiscal Year 2023


Basic State Grant


Total Amount

Estimated Total Adults with Literacy Needs

Average Amount Per Adult with Literacy Needs






$5.13 / adult






$5.22 / adult






$5.17 / adult






$5.09 / adult






$5.04 / adult

New York





$6.34 / adult

North Carolina





$5.09 / adult






$4.01 / adult






$3.98 / adult

South Carolina





$4.87 / adult






$4.58 / adult






$4.86 / adult

West Virginia





$4.50 / adult






$4.91 / adult

When looking at the levels of funding given to states in Fiscal Year 2023, Appalachian states received a total of $216,627,075 to provide adult education services and activities not specifically for adults in need of remedial literacy and numeracy educational services, but for adults who lack a high school diploma or GED.

If we look at the estimated number of adults who read at or below an 8th-grade level, these federal funding levels would result in approximately $4.91 available to spend per adult in Appalachian states.

But issues are never that simple: Once states receive federal grant dollars, each state's respective Department of Education then determines who the subgrantees will be to provide those activities. This could include public or private non-profit organizations, contracted for-profit organizations, state educational institutions, or various other programs and entities that provide under-resourced services to a population that is hard to reach and may not be able to access their services.

And this is where issues get more complex: There is something of a cynical approach to adult education funding, in general, where local, state, and federal legislative and administrative officials know that the calculus of how and where those dollars will be spent is dependent upon a variety of factors, including (but not limited to):

Books on a curving library shelf
  1. The number and locations of adult education providers able to provide services;

  2. The reputations and efficacy of those adult education providers;

  3. The number of eligible adult learners who are interested in utilizing services;

  4. The ability of those learners to physically reach those services (e.g., who can get to classes where they are held);

  5. The estimated number of adult learners who will enroll in courses, and;

  6. The estimated attrition rate of adult learners once they are enrolled in courses (e.g., the number of students who will drop out of the courses once they're enrolled)

These considerations generally result in federal dollars being routed to providers located in urban areas, mainly because those providers tend to have higher numbers of enrollees. However, these funding calculations do not always result in services being providers in the places where they're most needed, nor do they account for the ability of providers to advertise their services or make them accessible to learners who live outside of their service area.

This generally results in rural areas that already suffer from lower levels of educational attainment and worse learning outcomes at the primary and secondary education levels being further impacted by a lack of resources available to address the needs of adults once they are no longer of school age.

How are adults living in rural Appalachia, where public transportation is non-existent, cell phone service is limited, access to broadband Internet services is worse, and adult education providers may not exist, supposed to access and afford the educational services they need to improve their abilities to read and do basic math?

In addition to a lack of adequate federal funding and programming to meet the educational needs of adult learners, state funding is rarely sufficient to complement federal expenditures, if it even exists.

These funds only go to establish and maintain services; few funds exist to expand services. Once those services are available, adult learners often have to overcome additional hurdles to address educational deficiencies, including accessing services outside of working hours (if those options exist), arranging and affording child care or care for adult dependents, and finding and affording transportation to and from these courses.

None of these hurdles are new. They have existed in the United States since we mandated that school attendance be mandatory up to a certain age or attainment level. And yet, like most poverty-driven issues, we have failed as a country in addressing and solving problems with obvious solutions but little political will or empathy to put money behind those solutions.

Many Americans still view poverty and poor educational outcomes not as the result of circumstances and a lack of equitable access to resources but as moral failings that individuals and their families must overcome to be considered worthy of respect and membership in society.

These beliefs, which largely go unspoken by all but the most vindictive, reach into our legislative and administrative bodies, creating and reinforcing stigmatizing attitudes about those most in need and resulting in a lack of will to fund solutions adequately.

This is a fundamental problem that we need to address as a nation to truly make a dent in the educational crises facing not just Appalachians but Americans in general.


bottom of page