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With Passage of WIOA, Adult Learners Still Need “Ability to Benefit”

Girl in library with books.

Mary Alice McCarthy has a great blog post on New America’s EdCentral discussing the new Workforce Investment and Opportunity Act and its support of using adult education funds for integrated education and training programs like I-BEST and Accelerating Opportunity. She also very rightly points out without the reinstatement of the Ability to Benefit provision of Pell, these integrated models will be very difficult to sustain and scale—federal adult education funds can barely meet the national need for literacy and numeracy education, much less vocational training.

This is a challenge that the states and colleges involved in Accelerating Opportunity are acutely aware of. Over the past three years, nearly 80 colleges across 7 states have been implementing integrated pathway models for underprepared adult learners. The removal of Ability to Benefit came just as states were moving from design to implementation, leaving states and colleges scrambling to figure out how to cover the cost of tuition for those underprepared learners without a high school credential. Despite the challenges created by this unexpected policy change, Accelerating Opportunity states have made great strides in implementing and scaling the model. As of the end of this past spring semester:

  • 6,270 students (half of whom lack a high school credential or GED) had enrolled in Accelerating Opportunity pathways
  • These students collectively earned 7,990 marketable, stackable credentials
  • Nearly 40 percent of participants earned 12 or more college credits.

This success is due in part to the numerous funding streams and strategies that states and colleges have utilized to cover the cost of college tuition. These creative approaches have allowed colleges to serve many more students without a high school credential than would have been possible otherwise. Funding strategies include:

Federal and State Grants

  • Workforce Investment Act funding: Strong partnerships between colleges and local Workforce Investment Boards have allowed students to access WIA training dollars to cover the cost of tuition.  While these funds are limited (and students must qualify), they have been an important resource for many colleges.
  • Temporary Assistance for Needy Families: In Kansas, TANF funds can cover the cost of tuition for a 12-credit hour pathway for students that are TANF-eligible.
  • Carl D. Perkins and Community Service Block Grants: Depending on state policy, these funds can be used to cover the cost of tuition and fees for Accelerating Opportunity students.

Support from Colleges

  • Tuition waivers: Many colleges have decided that it is worthwhile to waive tuition and fees for students without a high school credential, knowing that, in career pathways programs, these students are more likely to persist in college and ultimately generate more tuition revenue down the road.
  • College foundation support: Many colleges have been able to gain funding commitments from their college foundation to cover a range of costs, including tuition, fees, transportation costs, child care, and other expenses.

Policy Change

In some cases, states have even been able to develop legislation to fund tuition for students without a high school credential.  Kansas’s new AO-K Proviso reimburses colleges at the full course rate for students enrolled in integrated pathway programs.

This is only a partial list of the funding sources that Accelerating Opportunity states and colleges have come up with to cover the cost of tuition. However, these funding streams are all limited in amount and student eligibility. If we want to truly scale up these effective practices—and better leverage all of these cross-agency investments in underprepared learners—we need the reinstatement of Ability to Benefit. Providing students in integrated pathways with access to federal financial aid opens up the possibility of dramatically expanding the reach of the Accelerating Opportunity model.

For more information on Ability to Benefit, see our related blog: Expanding Opportunity for Low-income Adults