As chairman of the National Association of State Directors of Adult Education (NASDAE),I may be a little biased, but I believe a solution to the United States’ workforce and socioeconomic issues lie within using an overlooked resource - adult education. Health issues, incarceration rates and poverty are impacted by an individual’s highest education level. There may be no better ‘return on investment’ than that made with adult education, particularly when it comes to addressing America’s competitive skills crisis.

High school equivalency (HSE) graduates from our adult education system  could solve this crisis. However, there are 24 million working-age Americans – 12 percent of the workforce – without a high school diploma. While the number of working-age adults without a high school or equivalent credential is startling, there are still millions who do possess a high school diploma, yet lack the educational skills required to succeed in today’s workforce. Adult Education is poised to help those high school graduates who require remediation in academic and essential skills to be successful in college and career.

We need flexible, nimble, responsive and innovative risk-takers who approach challenges with a laser focus and a sense of urgency.

Employers want employees with strong soft and foundational academic skills.  However, employers must also become partners with their employees.  They must invest in them through tuition assistance and paid release time for educational and training programs. Those incentives encourage workers without a diploma to obtain an equivalency diploma. I believe that If employers in key sectors were to offer advanced job opportunities that often double or triple the wage of entry-level jobs for those who earn a HSE diploma (or even just require a HSE diploma for employment), nationwide education levels would rise.

We must consider the importance of entitlement reform. Studies indicate by staying home and receiving the full range of public benefits, a person can roughly “earn” the equivalent of roughly $15 an hour. This leads to a pervasive cultural apathy fueled by the fact that those without a HSE can earn more relying on benefits and staying at home than if they earned a HSE and obtained an entry-level job, thereby losing their benefits

State directors of adult education nationwide need policy levers, employer incentives and engaged partners to help us transform our system. The Coalition on Adult Basic Education (COABE) has partnered up with NASDAE in launching a national awareness campaign – “Educate and Elevate, Adult Education: An Investment in America’s Future.”

Our nation’s global competitiveness needs a faster adult education system that can take students further faster, but we can’t do it alone. We need flexible, nimble, responsive and innovative risk-takers who approach challenges with a laser focus and a sense of urgency.