Contemporary adult education can take many different forms. Colleges and universities have instituted evening programs, extension work, courses without credit, corresponence courses, and distance learning programs (with courses transmitted by satellite to numerous locations); community colleges have been especially active in this area. Organizations designed to relieve illiteracy are instrumental in adult education, as are the schools established to teach the English language and American customs to the foreign-born. Adult education is also sponsored by corporations, labor unions, and private institutes. The field now embraces such diverse areas as vocational education, high-school equivalency, parent education, adult basic education (including literacy training), physical and emotional development, practical arts, applied science, and recreation as well as the traditional academic, business, and professional subjects. Each year millions of Americans take such a course or program.
At the local level, public schools have been active in furnishing facilities and assistance to private adult education groups in many communities. Community centers, political and economic action associations, and dramatic, musical, and artistic groups are regarded by many as adult education activities. Great Books groups (est. 1947), in which adults read and discuss a specified list of volumes, grew out of great books seminars at Chicago and Columbia universities and St. John's College. In many places the local public library sponsors such groups.
Only in the past two centuries has the field of adult education acquired definite organization. Its relatively recent development results from numerous social trends—the general spread of public education, the intensification of economic competition with a resulting premium on skills, the complexities of national and international politics demanding constant study, the stimulating effects of urbanization, the opportunity offered by increased leisure time, and increased interest in educational activities on the part of many older men and women. Modern and formal adult education probably originated in European political groups and, after the Industrial Revolution, in vocational classes for workers. Continuation schools for workers in Germany and Switzerland were common. The folk high school in Denmark, founded by Bishop Grundtvig, stressed intellectual studies, and the Adult Schools of the Society of Friends in England (1845) fostered the education of the poor.
The earliest American forms of adult education were the public lectures given in the lyceum (c.1826) and the Lowell Institute of Boston endowed by John Lowell (1836). In 1873 the Chautauqua movement introduced the discussion group and modified lecture system. Free public lectures supported by the Dept. of Education of New York City were inaugurated in 1904. In 1926 the Carnegie Corporation organized the American Association for Adult Education, which later became the Adult Education Association of the U.S.A. In 1982 it merged with the National Association for Public Continuing Adult Education to form the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education. This group, through its research and publications, works not only to promote education as a lifelong learning process but also to systematize the methods and philosophy of the field.
Federal funding and support for adult education have been provided through the Vocational Education Act (1963), the Economic Opportunity Act (1964), the Manpower Act (1965), the Adult Education Act (1966, amended 1970), the Comprehensive Employment and Training Act (1973), the Lifelong Learning Act (1976), and for a broader spectrum of learners by the Carl D. Perkins Vocational and Applied Technology Act (1984). The Office of Vocational and Adult Education, under the U.S. Dept. of Education, administers grant, contract, and technical assistance programs for adult education, literacy, and occupational training. Most federal funding for these programs is administered through the states, counties, and individual communities. Other major federal providers of adult education are the Dept. of Agriculture and the Dept. of Defense.
See C. H. Grattan, In Quest of Knowledge (1955, repr. 1971); D. N. Portman, The University and the Public (1979); P. Jarvis, Adult and Continuing Education (1990); and M. S. Knowles, A History of the Adult Education Movement in the United States (rev. ed. 1994).
Adult education is the practice of teaching and educating adults. This often happens in the workplace, through 'extension' or 'continuing education' courses at secondary schools, at a college or university. Other learning places include folk high schools, community colleges, and lifelong learning centers. The practice is also often referred to as 'Training and Development'. It has also been referred to as andragogy (to distinguish it from pedagogy). A difference is made between vocational education, mostly undertaken in workplaces and frequently related to upskilling, and non-formal adult education including learning skills or learning for personal development.
Adults frequently apply their knowledge in a practical fashion to learn effectively. They must have a reasonable expectation that the knowledge recently gained will help them further their goals. One example, common in the 1990s, was the proliferation of computer training courses in which adults (not children or adolescents), most of whom were office workers, could enroll. These courses would teach basic use of the operating system or specific application software. Because the abstractions governing the user's interactions with a PC were so new, many people who had been working white-collar jobs for ten years or more eventually took such training courses, either at their own whim (to gain computer skills and thus earn higher pay) or at the behest of their managers.
In the United States, a more general example is that of the high-school dropout who returns to school to complete general education requirements. Most upwardly-mobile positions require at the very least a high school diploma or equivalent. A working adult is unlikely to have the freedom to simply quit his or her job and go "back to school" full time. Public school systems and community colleges usually offer evening or weekend classes for this reason. In Europe this is often referred to as "second-chance", and many schools offer tailor-made courses and learning programs for these returning learners.
Those adults who read at the very lowest level get help from volunteer literacy programs. These programs provide one to one tutoring and small group sessions for adults at the 6th grade level or below. Public libraries, nonprofit organizations and school systems administer these programs across the country. ProLiteracy Worldwide is the national organization which provides training, tutor certification and accreditation for local volunteer programs. States often have state organizations such as Literacy Florida!Inc.which provide field services for volunteer literacy programs.
In the U.S.A., the equivalent of the high school diploma earned by an adult through these programs is to pass the General Education Development (GED) test.
Another fast-growing sector of adult education is English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL), also referred to as English as a Second Language (ESL)or English Language Learners (ELL). These courses are key in assisting immigrants with not only the acquisition of the English language, but the acclimation process to the culture of the United States.