Adult education enrollment dips

Immigration limits and a sour economy hurt many programs, although tech classes benefit

Adult education can mean anything from a one-night class in summer cooking to six weeks of algebra for a high school diploma, but in all its forms, adult education is proving to be much affected this summer by the sluggish economy.

Programs offering elective courses for personal enrichment have seen enrollments drop by at least 10 percent. Meanwhile, centers that serve as a safety net for high school students have seen enrollments soar as they pick up the slack from slashed school-district budgets.

National figures are difficult to pinpoint since many adult-education centers have not yet finalized or analyzed this summer's enrollments.

What educators feel safe to say, however, is that the nation's economic downturn since Sept. 11, 2001, has sent waves that continue to ripple through the world of adult education, especially in the summer months, which is typically an off-season (enrollment peaks in September and January).

An attempt to 'understand the world'

Language courses have long been a mainstay, particularly during the summer, when Americans are traveling abroad. Arabic and Japanese classes that began last year at the Boston Center for Adult Education, for example, are full again.

James Smith, executive director of the Cambridge Center for Adult Education in Cambridge, Mass., says languages help people "understand the world and United States' place in it."

In contrast, courses in English as a Second Language have fallen off sharply at metropolitan centers across the nation. Public adult-ed ESL classes offered in Brookline, Mass., for example, which usually have 800 students are down by 200. The Cambridge Center similarly lost about 20 percent of its students over the past year.

"It's devastating to our program," Mr. Smith says. "The US is a lot less immigrant-friendly than it used to be, so it's harder to get a visa to come here. [Immigrants] who were here are going home.... Those who are still here are less likely to risk any sort of public exposure by registering for a class."

But in Chicago, immigrants have flocked to a course that combines English instruction with job skills.

Truman College has added an extra section in a technology-based English as a Second Language course, where students learn computers and a new language simultaneously.

"You just go there and forget your problems for a while," says Oleksandra Kikhard, who emigrated from Ukraine four years ago and is out of work. "We came here like small children, adjusting to life in the United States, and it's a lot of stress on us. So you just go and laugh a bit while you learn something that will help you. It's like a therapy."

Adults with weak English skills have kept enrollment steady at the Boulder Family Learning Center in Boulder, Colo., according to director Brenda Lyle. Welfare-to-work programs that began in the mid-1990s have brought immigrants into the workforce, she says, but many struggle to survive at minimum wage.

"It's very hard to advance, even in an entry-level job, if you don't know the language," Ms. Lyle says. "People are trying to catch up on their skills just to keep up with inflation."

For Arturo Luengas, a young prep cook from Mexico City, his course in English and technology at Truman College in Chicago could help open doors one day to a managerial position.

"Before this course, I didn't know how to use computers. I was afraid of them," Mr. Luengas says. Now, he writes essays on a word processor and e-mails his friends in Mexico. It's been worth a few hours per week, he says, because he is "not afraid anymore."

The price of learning soars

With enrollment down 17 percent from last summer, public schools in Brookline have hiked fees by 6 percent and eliminated more than a quarter of their course offerings. At the Cambridge Center, enrollment is down 10 percent from this point last year, with almost every area from writing to investing taking a hit.

"We're part of the economy, just like everybody else," Smith says, "and people don't have as much money to spend on classes."

In other types of programs and in certain course areas, however, the economy has produced a fresh crop of students. The drawing card seems to be classes that help people cope - emotionally as well as financially - with a tough economic times.

"How to Survive the Coming Depression" was a hit this season at the Cambridge Center, as were courses on changing careers, buying foreclosed property, and supplementing income by starting a dog-walking business.

Such "work life" courses have enrolled 25 percent more students than a year ago at the Cambridge Center. Yet in Brookline, courses in résumé-building and networking have been flat. "If you've been out of work for a year and a half, you've been there and done that already," says Linda Larson, director of adult education for the Brookline Public Schools.

High school students in Florida who flunked classes this year have flocked to adult-education centers this summer in lieu of summer school programs, which disappeared in the last round of state budget cuts and showed no sign of being revived.

In Brevard County alone, enrollment for the past year has increased from 8,000 to more than 9,700, which adult education director John Wigley attributes primarily to the various new summer-school offerings.

Yet despite certain sectors with strong enrollments, educators are concerned that the current economic downturn could reshape the adult education landscape with some regrettable contours.

As enrollments drop, fees must go up to cover costs, Ms. Larson says.

An example: A 16-hour photography course that cost $95 last year is up to $103 this year. What's more, enrollments tend to be slow to recover, even after the economy revives.

Larson's program needed almost eight years to regain the ground it had lost in the recession of the early 1990s. And in an age when public dollars for education are increasingly scarce, she says, adult education may become more and more the domain of those who can afford it.

"The sadness of this recession is that it really is making much more of an elite program," Larson says. "In the long haul, this is [damaging] to our mission."

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