Anxiously Awaited Guidance Released on Partial Restoration of Ability to Benefit
Last December, Congress partially restored the Ability to Benefit (ATB) provision of the Higher Education Act, as part of the FY 2015 “CROmnibus” Appropriations Act. This change will allow students who do not have a high school diploma or a GED, but who are enrolled in eligible career pathway programs, to be determined eligible for Pell grants if they can pass an approved test or successfully complete six hours of college credit. Though seemingly small, this amendment to the Higher Education statute will have a huge impact on thousands of students who will now be able to pursue the postsecondary education and training coursework and attain the credentials that are necessary for careers in high-demand occupations.
While the new law specified that students would become eligible retroactively to July 1, 2014 for ATB determination, financial aid administrators at colleges across the country wanted further clarification from the Department of Education before again determining eligibility for ATB students. On May 22, the Department issued this guidance through a letter published on ED’s IFAP website. In this guidance, the Department provides clarification on several important points, including:
- Identification of the methods approved by the Secretary of Education for determining ATB eligibility;
- Clarification regarding the retroactive implementation of the reinstated ATB provisions; and
- Guidance for determining what is an “eligible career pathway program” for purposes of determining a student’s eligibility.
This latter clarification is of utmost importance. To be eligible for the newly restored ATB provision, a student must be enrolled in an “eligible career pathway program”—which must:
- Concurrently enroll students in connected adult education and eligible postsecondary programs
- Provide students with counseling and supportive services to identify and attain academic and career goals
- Provide structured course sequences that—
- Are articulated and contextualized; and
- Allow students to advance to higher levels of education and employment
- Provide opportunities for acceleration for students to attain recognized postsecondary credentials, including degrees, industry relevant certifications, and certificates of completion of apprenticeship programs
- Be organized to meet the needs of adults
- Be aligned with the education and skill needs of the regional economy
- Have been developed and implemented in collaboration with partners in business, workforce development, and economic development
Equally important is the clarification that an eligible career pathway program must have two components:
- An adult education program component
- A Title IV eligible postsecondary program component
The letter further specifies that, for the purpose of determining ATB eligibility, “adult education” has the same definition as provided in Title II of the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). Under this definition, students must be concurrently enrolled in a program that includes academic instruction and education services below the postsecondary level that increase an individual’s ability to:
- Read, write, and speak in English and perform mathematics or other activities necessary for the attainment of a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent;
- Transition to postsecondary education and training; and
- Obtain employment.
This distinction is critical because, while it uses the definition from Title II of WIOA, it does not require that students be enrolled in a Title II Adult Education and Family Literacy Act program. This clarification will enable students who are concurrently enrolled in programs that provide the above-described services, such as programs for out-of-school youth in Title I of WIOA, or other programs that offer comprehensive “adult education” services, to be eligible for determining Pell grant eligibility through ATB if all other requirements are met. In other words, it uses the Title II definition from WIOA, but it does not require that services be provided through a Title II-funded program.
Career pathway initiatives employ innovative strategies that enable underprepared youth and adults to earn postsecondary occupational credit at the same time as they are developing basic education and English language skills—often concurrently working toward a high school diploma or a GED. These co-enrollment strategies accelerate the time required to earn credentials that meet employers’ skill needs. Recent studies show that students in these programs outperform similar students in earning college credits and certificates, and in persisting to program completion and good jobs.
Now that ATB is restored for students in eligible career pathway programs, it is critical that we do everything we can to help students in these programs access Pell grants and the wraparound supports that will enable them to succeed in the postsecondary coursework that will lead to industry-recognized postsecondary credentials and to family-supporting careers.
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