History of Adult Education: Info on Adult Education Programs

Adult education programs have changed significantly, growing from a narrow vocational skills focus to more broadly encompassing fields like information technology. The main sources of adult education are public schools, colleges and universities, proprietary schools, and the government. View article »

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  • 0:04 History of Adult…
  • 0:58 Programs of the 1700s
  • 1:19 Programs of the 1800s
  • 1:47 Programs of the 1900s
  • 2:48 Modern-Day Programs
  • 5:20 Basic Requirements

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Video Transcript

History of Adult Education in the U.S.

Find out about adult education programs in the 1700s, 1800s, 1900s, and in modern times. It can be especially helpful to examine the program and course offerings that are available today.

Adult education programs are also known as continuing or recurrent education. They are typically designed for individuals who are no longer in school full time. Some public high schools hold adult classes at night in the same buildings used by school kids during the day. Colleges and universities offer extension courses for adult learners. These courses are offered in the evenings, via correspondence, or through the Internet. The programs may or may not lead to a degree. The first adult education programs began in the 1700s and are still a regular part of many education systems.

Programs of the 1700s

In the 1700s, apprenticeships were one of the first adult education programs. They were offered during the colonial period. In an apprenticeship, a person would learn an art or trade by working for a skilled master for a certain number of years. Masters also often taught their apprentices how to read and write.

Programs of the 1800s

A wide array of adult education institutions popped up during the 1800s. Some of these institutions were study groups known as lyceums. Members of these study groups held discussions as well as attending lectures and debates. Another adult education system during the 1800s was termed the Chautauqua movement. In its simplest meaning, Chautauqua referred to traveling groups that went from town to town presenting lectures.

Programs of the 1900s

During the 1900s, the government began taking a more important role in adult education. Many pieces of legislation began popping up, such as the Smith-Lever Act of 1914, which provided federal funds for training in farming and home economics. Three years later, the Smith-Hughes Act was enacted to finance vocational programs. During the Great Depression, the government sponsored adult education programs to help create jobs for out-of-work teachers.

At the end of World War II, the government set up a program for veterans wanting to go to school. This program was known as the GI Bill of Rights. The 1962 Manpower Development and Training Act and the 1964 Economic Opportunity Act both provided federal funds for training unemployed adults. The Economic Opportunity Act also established the Adult Basic Education (ABE) program.

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Modern Day Programs

At one time, adult education referred to being taught remedial and basic skills. However, today's programs focus on broader, higher-level skills that include problem-solving, information literacy, and information technology. Students can enroll in adult education programs at adult high schools, community colleges, university extension programs, and even prisons. Educational opportunities are also offered at proprietary schools, which operate like businesses. The government also sponsors adult education programs. For example, the Department of Agriculture provides training in farming for adults in rural areas.

Topics covered in today's adult education programs include:

  • Adult Basic Education (ABE)
  • Citizenship preparation
  • English as a Second Language (ESL)
  • Family literacy
  • GED classes
  • Workplace training

ABE courses help students increase their basic academic skills, improve their life skills, and make sure they are ready to join the workforce. Citizenship preparation courses provide assistance to applicants for U.S. citizenship. In these courses, students learn about history, civics, and the English language so that they will be prepared for the naturalization test. Some courses also include legal services. ESL courses are for students whose primary language is not English. In a course like this, students will get help speaking and writing English as well as preparation to enter the workforce.

Family literacy courses train parents to become the primary teachers of their kids. This course also helps parents become economically self-sufficient. GED classes are for students who did not finish high school and are looking for an alternative to the high school diploma. The same course subjects taught in high schools are learned in GED classes, including mathematics, English, history, science, and government. GED classes also include a practice test in preparation for the GED examination. Workplace training courses are for adults who want to develop the skills needed for particular trades. For instance, those who wish to work as office assistants or secretaries can find adult education courses where they learn to work with documents and spreadsheets.

Basic Requirements

Most modern day adult education programs are designed for students 18 years of age or older. However, some allow 16- and 17-year-old students not currently enrolled in high school to attend. They may need special permission to enroll, usually from a parent, legal guardian, or local government agency. For some workplace education courses, a high school diploma or the equivalent may be required for admission.

Adult education has long been a part of American culture and adult education opportunities today offer a broad range of training. Adult students can take GED and ESL courses, prepare for U.S. citizenship, and gain training for a specific trade or career.

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