Adult and Continuing Education: Its Programs


The Nature of Adult Education Programs

The term "program" can be found in adult education literature to have several different meanings. In addition, practitioners who plan, teach, and implement adult education or training activities frequently may have many different definitions in mind when they describe their programs. The purpose of this introductory section is to describe some of the different conceptions of what "program" means and to provide a definition as a basis for the remainder of the chapter.

One common means for describing adult education programs is to refer to their institutional base: The YMCA program, the community college program, or the public school adult education program. However, this concept of program does not readily discriminate between those activities that are for youth and those that are for adults. In addition, some institutions may utilize adult education only to achieve an organizational goal not necessarily related to adults or to education, such as the training program in a business; another institution may view adult education as its primary function and focus. Consequently, comparisons of adult education programs among various institutions are difficult.

Another way in which adult education is at times referred to as a program is by the methodological format utilized in presenting information. In other words, it is not uncommon to hear of a workshop, retreat, or educational television presentation referred to as an educational program for adults. However, comparisons between activities of a methodological nature and those of the broader institutional view are practically impossible to make.

There are other means for describing programs and the reader is referred to several of the sources cited at the end of this chapter. For purposes of this chapter, the following definition is presented: The total set of procedures, instructional techniques, administrative arrangements, and purposes necessary for the bringing together of educational opportunity and an adult with a learning need. Such learning is implied to be purposeful, undertaken voluntarily, and supplemental to the main responsibilities of life. The sponsorship of programs may be at the federal, state, or community level.

Even the above definition does not distinctly categorize every learning activity engaged in by an adult. For example, the many self-directed and self-planned learning pursuits undertaken by a person in any given year may not fit completely within the definitional boundaries. In addition, many programs will operate across all three levels of sponsorship, while others operate at the very micro phase of any one level. However, the broad definition and the three levels of sponsorship provide a base for describing most adult education and training activities in the United States.

Federal Programs

There are several adult and continuing education programs that have their genesis at the federal level. Frequently, this genesis is in the way of financial support, leadership in the way of coordination, providing cohesion to the field, and governmental liaison, and the development of resource materials. Programs that actually involve adults are usually at the state and, most often, at the local community level. Consequently, you may need to make conceptual linkages among the three levels of sponsorship for certain of the programs.

The major programs, their aims, and their audiences are described in the following subsections. All of the subsections under the three headings are relatively brief and general in nature. You are referred to the bibliography at the end of the chapter for sources containing more specific information.

Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service

The Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service (CSREES) with primary offices in Washington, D.C., is a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. CSREES serves as a source of information to, and coordination for, a variety of programs at the state and local community. The federal organization also serves as a link to the legislative/political side of Washington life. The CSREES provides program ideas, research data, and expert assistance to states on a need and program forecasting basis.

The Extension Service also makes available some direct services to states and communities. Support and leadership is provided to the National 4-H Conference Center, which trains young adults and Extension workers; financial support and leadership is provided to the Expanded Food and Nutrition Education Program (EFNEP), an adult education endeavor at the local community level that employs many paraprofessionals; support also is given at the state and local levels for leadership and volunteer development (LVD).

Many additional initiatives are carried out by CSREES. See for much more information and details.

U. S. Department of Education

The U.S. Department of Education has a variety of divisions and programs related to adult education, vocational education, and higher education. For example, under the heading "Adult Education and Literacy," the Department administers several programs:

Under the heading of vocational education, the Department also coordinates or supports several initiatives:

For additional details see their web site:

U.S. Department of Labor

The U.S. Department of Labor has a number of manpower development efforts. For example, the Bureau of Apprenticeship and Training (BAT) registers apprenticeship programs and apprentices in several States and assists and oversees State Apprenticeship Councils (SACs) which perform these functions in many parts of the country. Various other adult training programs exist to teach job skills and provide job placement services for economically disadvantaged adults:

Several such initiatives are described at the Department's web site, too:

Miscellaneous Programs and Organizations

There are other federal government programs that have a connection in some way to the adult education field. For example, the Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI) supports developmental or experimental research and programs that impact literacy and disadvantaged learner programs. in such areas as non-traditional education. The National Center for Educational Statistics carries out research on such areas as Adult Basic Education, general adult education, literacy, and adult lifeskills.

Although the Natiaonl Adult Education Act was repealed and replaced by the Workforce Investment Act (PL105-220) in 1998, during its existence a multitude of programs and initiatives were undertaken. In many ways, the nature of adult education in the United States was changed because of these initiatives. Gary Eyre, an adult educator who has contributed much at both the state and national levels, wrote a very useful history of the Adult Education Act. It is highly recommended reading.

There are several professional associations described in greater detail in Chapter 5 whose activities include the development of national publications, liaison with federal government offices and officials, and coordination of various adult education activities. These include such groups as the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education (AAACE), American Society for Training & Development (ASTD), Association for Continuing Higher Education (ACHE), Commission of Professors of Adult Education (CPAE), Council for Adult and Experiential Learning (CAEL), National Community Education Association (NCEA), and University Continuing Education Association (UCEA). Numerous national foundations also provide financial support and encouragement for continuing education endeavors.

Specialized national programs devoted to providing or supporting adult education also exist. For example, Elderhostel is the nation's first and the world's largest educational and travel organization for adults 55 and over. Since its founding as a not-for-profit organization in 1975, the organization has offered learning opportunities to hundreds of thousands of older adults. Programs like Habitat for Humanity provide opportunities for adults to both learn about other people and the needs, but also to volunteer their skills through building and community development efforts. Many national religious organizations offer similar opporunities for interested people.

State and Regional Programs

A variety of adult and continuing education programs receive sponsorship or direction from states, regional groupings, or multi-state consortia. Often affiliated with or receiving funding from federal sources, the state and regional programs can focus on problems and clientele unique to a particular area.

State Departments of Education

State departments of education typically have had a long affiliation with adult, continuing education, literacy, and human resource development efforts. They have provided special consultants to local communities, carried out record-keeping activities, and provided financial support to adult education and training activities throughout the states for some time.

The National Adult Education Act of 1966 (recently repealed) allowed states to match some state and local monies with federal monies in the establishment of Adult Basic Education, General Educational Development (high school completion), and other educational programs for adults. Most states have one or more full-time professionals working with adult and community education programs. The current Workforce Investment Act is in the process of creating various workforce development and training initiatives.

Ten Regional Education Department offices provide liaison services from the federal government to the state offices. Regional staff are primarily involved in representing the Department's goals and views within the region, in such areas as student financial assistance, civil rights enforcement, and vocational rehabilitation services for the disabled.


The various military organizations located throughout the country carry out numerous adult and continuing education activities. The activities range from credit programs for military personnel to noncredit programs for interested people. Most of the programs are administered out of a primary military headquarters or base and therefore serve military and other clientele on a regional basis. However, a number of them cooperate with local educational organizations to provide both credit and noncredit education opportunities for adults and spouses affiliated with the military.

Professional Organizations and Associations

Most states have one or more professional adult and continuing education or training-related associations. Such groups usually provide consultative assistance to local communities, carry out at least one statewide conference each year, and maintain some sort of newsletter or periodic publication for members. The state associations often serve as the only device available for adult educators scattered throughout a state to have periodic contact with one another and to obtain continuing professional education.

There is a current movement in some states to merge all the various adult, continuing, and community education-related associations into one large state organization. The state of Nebraska, for example, has an association entitled the Adult and Continuing Education Association of Nebraska. At the regional level, another example is the Missouri Valley Adult Education Association  that provides similar support but over a several state region. The Nebraska association has an affiliation with the Missouri Valley group. As another example, the State of Pennsylvania has a very active state adult and continuing educationassociation (PAACE) with a large membership, a well-attended annual conference, and a scholarly journal that publishes articles from scholars throughout North America.

Miscellaneous Programs

Numerous additional statewide or regional programs of adult and continuing education exist. Various foundations, voluntary organizations, religious organizations, educational television networks, and governmental agencies operate educational programs for adults in most states. Training programs, public information efforts, and public awareness programs are the usual activities that are offered.

Community Programs

The heart of adult education and training activity is programming at the community level. As Table 4.1 shows, numerous types of organizations are involved with adult education and many people are involved with the programs. The table's figures account for only part of the many educational programs for adults at the community level and do not reflect all of the growth in recent years. For example, millions enroll each year in Adult Basic Education or General Educational Development (GED) programs that are not necessarily reflected in the table. The following subsections briefly describe a variety of programs and the clientele they serve to reflect the overall activity at the community level.

Table 4.1. Participation in Adult Learning; Percentage of adults (18 and older) who participated in various learning activities, 1999

                            Type of Provider for Various Adult Learning Activities
Type of Activity Elem./Second. Post-Second. Trade




Business Government Other








































NOTE: Information on the type of provider of adult learning activities was aggregated as follows. Elementary/secondary: elementary, junior high school, or high school; postsecondary: 2-year community or junior college, 2-year vocational school, or 4-year college or university; trade organization: private vocational, trade, business, hospital, flight school, or adult learning center; private: private community organization, church or religious organization, tutor, or private instructor; business: business or industry, or professional association; and government: federal, state, county, or local government, or public library. For each type of activity, the percentages shown are based only on adults who participated in that activity. Percentages may add to more than 100.0 because individuals can take more than one work-related or personal-development course.

SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, NCES. (1999). National household education surveys program (NHES), 1999 (Adult Education Survey). Available electronically:

Community School and Community Education

Not in Table 4.1 are the many programs and people involved with community education programs. Typically, where community school--community education programs exist, a large percentage of the adults in that community participate in some fashion each year in learning activities. The programs often include a variety of credit and noncredit programs ranging from vocational training to recreational activities. The community education movement in the United States can he traced to various locales and experimental efforts. However, the effort that has probably made the greatest contribution is the Mott community school program that started in Flint, Michigan, in the 1930s. The Mott Foundation and a variety of other sources have helped to establish community education programs in many parts of the United States. Foundation support and some State support related to community education should continue to aid in the development of adult and community education at the community level. See the following web site for more information on community education programs:

Public School and Community Recreation Center Adult Education Programs

Public School adult education programs historically have involved millions of adults in learning pursuits. Many communities in the United States still administer adult education through local school boards. Other communities have active community recreation programs instead or in addition to the public school programs. The resulting activities include such programs as Adult Basic Education, vocational education, general education, technology-related education, and recreation-related education.

Community/Junior Colleges - Vocational Institutions

The community and junior colleges in the United States offer a variety of community service programs to adults as do those vocational institutions that exist in many communities. College transfer programs, general education opportunities, vocational training, noncredit adult programs, and learning resource centers are among the opportunities available to local community and supporting area residents. Some of these efforts are reflected in the above Table, but many others related to career development, personal interest, and technological skills may not be.

University Extension

Most institutions of higher education throughout the United States offer credit and noncredit learning opportunities through university extension or continuing study programs. Correspondence courses, media services, on campus and off-campus conferences, off-campus courses, and travel courses are frequent modes of education utilized for extension programs.

Some colleges and universities have residential centers for continuing and extension education activities. With such centers more extensive adult education programming can be undertaken. Workshops and institutes of longer duration than a typical conference are possible. In addition, food and hotel services allow participants opportunities for more intensive involvement in the learning activities.

Cooperative Extension

Receiving support from the federal Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service described earlier, most counties have Cooperative Extension Service offices where professionals plan and administer a variety of educational programs. Four areas, including agriculture, home economics, youth development, and community and resource development, typically make up the programming emphases. Specific program topics for adults include such topics as home and family living, agriculture and marketing, home and commercial gardens, technology, foods and nutrition, clothing construction, consumer awareness, money management, community and resource development, general home economics, and public affairs education.

One of the strengths of Cooperative Extension at the local community and county levels is the development and use of volunteer leaders. Various in-service training devices are utilized for leader development, and the volunteer leaders in turn assist with the planning, implementation, and evaluation of many educational programs for adults living in a county.

Libraries, Museums, and Art Galleries

Most adults living in the United States have at least one library, museum, and/or art gallery in their own or nearby community. Exhibits, books, lectures, and special displays are some of the most widely utilized modes of education for interested adults. Many of these organizations will also have one or more meeting rooms available for special programming needs. In addition, many libraries and some art galleries or museums have displays, books, or programs that can be taken to individuals who live in remote areas or who cannot easily travel to the primary site.

Many libraries, museums, and art galleries throughout the United States employ adult education or community specialists. These individuals administer special programs, work with community groups, and provide liaison services with other educational programs in a community. Services for the blind, tutorial assistance, film and recording services, Great Books discussion groups, and Internet support are some of the special programs carried out by libraries. Some museum and art galleries hold adult classes, administer field trips, and offer special lecture series.

Private and Proprietary Schools

There are many private and proprietary schools throughout the United States whose purposes are to provide special training to adults. These organizations offer training in a number of vocational and occupational areas through regular courses, correspondence education, and individual-to-individual tutorial service. Private learning centers, secretarial schools, keyboard skills training, and skilled trade preparation programs are a few examples of the training being offered.

Business and Industry

A tremendous amount of adult education takes place through on-the-job training, apprentice programs, leadership development, pre-retirement programs, and continuing professional education efforts by business, industry, and labor unions in the United States. Many business and industry related organizations employ one or more persons whose functions deal primarily with training and education. In-plant education, time-release to attend educational programs, conference and workshop opportunities at various sites throughout the United States, and tuition reimbursement programs for credit and noncredit college or high school courses are some of the means by which employees may further their education.

Religious Education

Churches and other religious organizations reach a large number of adults each year through educational programs. Courses, seminars, and study groups concentrate on such topics as Bible study, religious doctrine and heritage, philosophy, human values and relations, self growth and awareness, and understanding other religions. Many larger churches and religious organizations employ one or more persons who are responsible for adult education activities and programs.

Programs for the Older Person

Many communities in the United States have special educational programs for older persons. Senior citizen centers, nursing homes, and various volunteer organizations or professional associations administer travel and tour programs, art and crafts activities, academic credit and noncredit courses, and recreational activities for interested participants. As has been noted in several of the preceding descriptions, the larger organizations often have the resources to employ one or more professionally trained educators to work with such programs.

Miscellaneous Agencies

In any given community, there might be one or more of the following agencies or groups sponsoring some sort of educational programs for adults:

In addition, private groups, individuals, and neighborhood associations often provide adult education programs, typically, however, in larger communities. These might include efforts to provide education or training on such topics as civil liberties, community issues, community improvement, vocational rehabilitation, substance abuse, the arts, and a myriad of other topics.

Some Problems

There are many problems yet to be solved before the various adult and continuing education programs can be fully utilized in a lifelong learning sense. Solutions to these problems will not be easy to find or easy to implement.

One major problem is the lack of coordination for adult education and training efforts. Such a lack may lead to a competition for clientele, often at the expense of meeting all the educational needs of adult audiences. The problem exists most noticeably at the local community level but often, too, at the state and national levels.

Another problem is the relatively low financial support for adult and continuing education in comparison to support for youth education and other forms of human service. Most taxpayers, for example, must support the free education of youth and, at the same time, pay for any adult education activities in which they engage. Financial support problems exist at the national, state, and local levels, too.

Determining how much lifelong learning opportunity to make available in each community is another area of concern. As a matter of fact, it is not uncommon to find programs planned and offered that are based purely on a hunch or on what was tried in some other community. A related problem is keeping adult education programs from becoming so over-institutionalized to the point that they are always tied directly to a long-range curriculum plan, credentialism need, or methodological constraint. Such institutional limitations prevent the facilitation of educational needs possessed by self-directed learners.

A final problem to be discussed here in relation to adult education programs concerns the difficulties agencies and organizations have in maintaining top quality educational opportunities. Finding qualified teachers, determining the real needs of participants, and utilizing instructional approaches or techniques that are appropriate for the adult learner are some of the issues related to quality programming that must be addressed. Later chapters discuss such issues in greater detail.

Some Definitions

Adult Basic Education (ABE)--Instruction in communicative, computational, and social skills for adults whose inability to utilize such skills lessens their obtaining or retaining employment commensurate with their real ability. In addition, a person's satisfaction with life may be greatly reduced by the lack of such skills. Formal ABE programs usually include instructions for adults whose educational attainment is below the eighth-grade level.

Adult education agency--An institution, organization, or group whose primary purpose is the facilitation of educational programs for adult clientele. Such an agency or group is often part of a larger institution.

Clientele--The specific subgroup of people for which an adult education agency aims its programs.

Course--A planned sequence of educational activities designed to give the participant new skills or knowledge. A course may be for credit or noncredit.

High school equivalency diploma--The General Educational Development (GED) tests service of the American Council on Education provides a high school equivalency diploma or certificate to individuals who pass the equivalency examination. High schools and state departments of education issue the diploma or certificate.

Study Questions or Stimulators

1. How many different meanings to the term "program" can you identify in your community or in reviewing some adult education literature?

2. List the different institutions offering adult education opportunities in your community. Analyze the different types of clientele served by each institution.

3. Determine the reasons for the development of the Cooperative Extension Service in the United States. What legislative basis does the Cooperative Extension Service have today?

4. What is the current level of federal support for Adult Basic Education in your state? What is the level of state support? What relationship does your state department of education have with your local community's adult education efforts?

5. Analyze the different kinds of instructional methods used by institutions or agencies in your community that offer programs for adults.

6. Does your community have a community education or public school adult education program? If so, determine the extent and type of adult education opportunities.

7. What type of adult education opportunities are available through the community or junior college in or nearest to your local community?

8. What kinds of educational opportunities for adults are available through the vocational training organization in or nearest to your local community? Visit the organization if you have an opportunity.

9. Visit a library, museum, or art gallery in your community or in a nearby community. What kind of adult education programs does the organization have?

10. Make a tally of the number of different proprietary or private schools in your community offering educational opportunities to adults.

11. Interview one or more church educators in your community. Determine the breadth and nature of educational opportunities for adults.

12. What type of adult education programs are available in your community for older persons? Are there any pre-retirement educational programs available in local businesses or through some other organizations?

Selected Bibliography


Apps, J. W. (1981). The adult learner on campus. Chicago: Follett. Apps provides chapters on such toics as who are the adults returning to college, comparisons between adult learners and traditional learners, the learning environments such students face, learning formats and techniques, and the problems instructors face in working with adult learners.

Axford, R. W. (1969). Adult education: The open door. Scranton, PA: International Textbook Company. The author provides an introduction to adult education, its leaders, its programs, and its place in society. Supportive materials, tables, and resource guides are included.

Darkenwald, G. G., & Merriam, S. B. (1982). Adult education: Foundations of practice. New York: Harper Collins. This book served as a primary text for introductory courses on adult education for many years. The authors provide a variety of information on the nature of the field, its history, its programs, its clients, and even its future.

Hiemstra, R. (1994). Lifelong education and personal growth. In A. Monk (Ed.), The Columbia retirement handbook. New York: Columbia University Press. In this chapter, the author provides a frame work for older adults to use in thinking about how educational involvement can assist them in their retirement years.

Houle, C. O. (1992). The literature of adult education: A bibliographic essay. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. This huge volume presents a masterful review and summary of most of the literature developed for the field of adult education. Houle categorizes his essays in terms of the growth of the field, the providers and goals of the field, and the practice of adult education. 

Knowles, M. S. (1980). The modern practice of adult education: From pedagogy to andragogy (Rev. Ed.). New York: Association Press. This book describes a unique teaching and learning process for use in working with adults participating in educational programs. Examples utilized throughout the book provide a wealth of information on various programs and the author includes many useful bibliographic resources.

Jarvis, P., Peters, J. M., & Associates. (1991). Adult education: Evolution and achievements in a developing field of study. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. In a follow-up to the Jensen, Liveright, and Hallenbeck book described below, the various authors provide many perspectives on how the field of study related to adult education changed during a 25-year period.

Jensen, G., Liveright, A. A., & Hallenbeck, W. (Eds.). (1964). Adult education: Outlines of an emerging field of university study. Washington, DC: Adult Education Association of the USA. The book has chapters on a variety of topics written by many authors. In addition to providing a general overview of the field of adult education, the book has some specific information on programs and institutions.

Merriam & Brockett (1977). See Chapter 1.

Sheared, V., & Sissel, P. A. (Eds.). (2001). Making space: Merging theory and practice in adult education. Westport, CN: Bergin & Garvey. The editors pulled together an impressive group of authors to talk about various issues pertaining to inclusion and exclusion and how the have affected and continue to affect the adult education field.

Wilson, A. L. , & Hayes, E. R. (Eds.). (2000). Handbook of adult and continuing education. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass. This massive handbook is a must to understand the state of the adult education field today. Numerous authors contribute chapters on such topics as adult learning for self-development, the politics of race in adult education, planning educational programs, adult education and Democracy, adult learning and technology, adult literacy, and workplace learning.


Following are some of the periodicals related in some way to the fields of adult education and training. The following web site presents a larger list of periodicals: /apaguides.html, although it is somewhat dated so several of the periodicals may no longer be in existence.

Adult Education Quarterly: A Journal of Research and Theory. Published quarterly by Sage Publications.

Adult Learning. Published eight times annually by the American Association for Adult & Continuing Education.

The Canadian Journal for the Study of Adult Education. An electronic journal:

Human Resource Development Quarterly. Published quarterly by Jossey-Bass Publishing for ASTD.

International Journal of Lifelong Education. Published six times a year by Taylor and Francis, and is available online: 

The Journal of Continuing Higher Education. Published three times a year by Kent Stat University for the Association for Continuing Higher Education.

New Directions for Adult and Continuing Education. Published quarterly by Jossey-Bass Publishing.

New Horizons in Adult Education. Published two or three times by Nova Southeastern University and available online:

The PAACE Journal of Lifelong Learning. Published annually by the Pennsylvania Association for Adult Continuing Education.

Perspectives: The New York Journal of Adult Learning. Published twice a year by NYACCE and Fordham University.

Training and Development Magazine. Published monthly by ASTD.


-- Return to Roger Hiemstra's opening page

-- Return to the Lifelong Learning contents page

-- Go to the Preface, information about the author, Chapter One, Chapter Two, Chapter Three, Chapter Five, Chapter Six, Chapter Seven, or Chapter Eight