Obama Spotlights Needs of Young Adult Learners

column | Adult Learning

Obama Spotlights Needs of Young Adult Learners

How to reignite the American Dream for Millions (of People)

By Betsy Corcoran (Columnist)     Jan 16, 2014

Obama Spotlights Needs of Young Adult Learners

In spite of all the hoopla around education technology, there’s been one surprisingly large community of people left out: Young adults who have either graduated or dropped out of high school and lack the reading, math, communications and even problem-solving skills to win high-paying jobs.

On Thursday, President Obama and First Lady Michelle Obama are scheduled to host a summit to spotlight the needs of this community—and focus the attention of university educators, nonprofits and the private sector on how to support young adult learners. (A live webcast here will share the event starting after 9:00 am ET.)

More than 100 college and university presidents are expected to attend the White House event, along with leaders from nonprofits, foundations, state government and businesses.

The number of adults who struggle with reading, math, communications and even problem-solving skills is staggering: a report issued last year by the OECD, “Time for the US to Reskill? What the Survey of Adult Skills Says,” estimated that more than 35 million American adult--close to 15% of the US adult population—lack these skills.

The OECD report observes: “Low ‘basic’ skills (literacy and numeracy) are more common in the United States than on average across countries. One in six adults have low literacy skills – in Japan the comparable figure is one in 20. Nearly one in three have weak numeracy skills against a cross country average of one in five.”

Although the Obama administration has promoted government-funded programs to support these young adult learners, Congress has not funded them. As a result, the President is appealing directly to universities, nonprofits and businesses for help.

According to a story in the Washington Post, National Economic Council Director Gene B. Sperling, who has helped organize the college and skills summits, says the administration hopes to secure "concrete commitments" from every summit attendee. “‘Whenever I spoke to any group of college presidents, foundations or businesses, we made crystal clear that we are not doing a conference to do panels for panels’ sake or to talk about what everyone thinks they are already doing good,’” Sperling told the Washington Post. “‘We made clear we are doing this to change the world by changing the paths of young people’s lives.’”

Among the nonprofits attending the White House summit is the Chicago-based Joyce Foundation, which has committed $1.4 million to supporting the development and growing awareness of edtech technologies that can help adult learners. That funding will go to three groups: the MIT Media Lab, Digital Promise and EdSurge. (Editor's note: Here's what we're doing.)

The MIT Media Lab will develop several education technology prototypes over the next two years. Digital Promise aims to help galvanize the national conversation. EdSurge plans to expand its coverage of edtech tools to include those aimed at supporting this community of learners.

The administration worries that although higher education has historically helped close the chasm between rich and poor Americans and created pathways to success, too many disadvantaged students feel like they can never set foot on that path—and they don’t try to continue their education after high school. Research (reported here by the New York Times) notes that even simple outreach to low income students, such as sending them information about the college admission policies, graduation rates and available financial aid, can boost applications.

On Tuesday, reported the Washington Post, the President told his Cabinet members: “‘I’ve got a phone that allows me to convene Americans from every walk of life — nonprofits, businesses, the private sector, universities — to try to bring more and more Americans together around what I think is a unifying theme: making sure that this is a country where if you work hard, you can make it.’”

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