Michigan misses a talent opportunity by not prioritizing adult education

For more than a decade, Michigan has struggled with a lack of skilled talent. So, the state correctly invested in programs, like Michigan Reconnect, designed to increase the percentage of the workforce with a postsecondary credential.


Note: A version of this opinion article appeared recently in Crain’s Detroit Business.


Unfortunately, at least 716,000 adult Michiganders are unable to take advantage of these opportunities – and the good-paying jobs they make possible – because they lack a high school diploma. Still more are barred from these opportunities because they lack English language proficiency, including a sizable population of skilled foreign-born residents who are unable to leverage the credentials they earned from their countries of origin.

Without foundational education, these adults are far more likely to be unemployed, out of the workforce and living in poverty. They also represent a huge untapped resource for a state that produces only three graduates for every 10 job openings requiring a postsecondary credential.

It would make sense, then, to connect more adults to foundational education. This would help them and their families thrive, while also meeting employer needs for talent. The entire state would benefit. 

And yet, in the 2020-21 school year, adult basic education programs reached only 17,182 learners. Worse, just 39.9% of enrollees obtained a credential that year, which adds up to about 6,848 individuals – less than 1% of the population that lacks a diploma.

Already, 267,000 of adults aged 18-64 without a diploma are not in the workforce. The stakes for them are getting higher as employers turn to automation to fill entry-level jobs. This includes jobs that used to be available to workers with less than a high school education, jobs that are never coming back.

The U.S. Department of Labor projects that two-thirds of job growth in Michigan through 2030 will be for positions that require at least a high school diploma. This means adults without this basic qualification will be competing for a shrinking pool of low-skill jobs that pay significantly less.

In addition to the education and skills deficit, we face demographic problems on the supply side of the talent equation, including an aging and retiring workforce and a birthrate that is not keeping up. These are factors largely out of our control. But we do have the ability to upskill the potential workforce that is here. And it is critical that we do so.

Restoring the promise

Michigan has a lot of good adult education providers, but they are being held back by inadequate funding, insufficient outcome measures and minimal support for providers and learners. Our state is missing a talent opportunity by failing to invest in this population the way it has put a priority on higher education.

TalentFirst’s new report, Restoring the Promise of Adult Education in Michigan,” designed and conducted by Public Policy Associates, has led us to a set of strategic recommendations to reverse these shortcomings.

Funding is part of the problem. State spending, the largest source of adult education funding, fell 68% between 2001 and 2021. An increase in the 2023 budget eased that decline but the total today still is 44% less than in 2001. Even so, the state’s investment in adult foundational education amounts to $0.01 for every $1.00 spent on higher education. The result is a system that can serve only a fraction of the potential learners and that employs mostly part-time and underpaid instructors. Those deemed “too difficult to serve” are getting left behind, and this population is only growing.

But that’s not the only explanation for weaknesses in the state’s strategy. We also found that adult education has been overlooked as the poor relative of education and workforce programming. Adult learners also face a wide range of barriers to accessing and completing programs. State funding is only accessible to small subset of providers operating within the K-12 system and has strict allowance guidelines that all but discourage innovation.

The good news: Michigan can emerge as a leader in preparing all adults to succeed in the knowledge-driven economy. This begins by taking a hard look at practical, actionable and measurable solutions to the problems. Our report proposes three five-year objectives:

  • Triple enrollment, which currently only serves 3.6% of the need
  • Double completion rates from 39.9% to 80%
  • Eliminate the gap in outcomes for people of color and English language learners

The report details 21 research-based strategies to achieve these objectives, including elevating adult education as part of a coordinated talent development system, increasing state funding, and providing more support for providers and students alike.

It’s critical that our state examines reforms to this system. We cannot afford to overlook the adults who require basic education, English language acquisition, remediation, and high school completion or equivalency. Ignoring this need hurts Michigan’s long-term competitiveness, but it also takes a personal toll on families.  

Every adult in Michigan also has a right to develop the foundational and occupational skills necessary to access healthcare, manage their finances, engage in the community, navigate social services, and support their children. What’s more, adult foundational education can open the door to employment, postsecondary education and career advancement. 

TalentFirst is working with partners across the state to build a stronger, more effective, more cohesive adult education system for all.

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