Pell Grants for Students in Career Pathways Programs

Accelerating Opportunity

Redesigning Adult Basic Education for College Success

Improving Adult Basic Education to increase the number of adults who enter postsecondary education and earn credentials that lead to family-supporting careers.

Barbara Endel
Senior Director
617.728.4446 x235

Pell Grants for Students in Career Pathways Programs

Policy Alert: Anxiously Awaited Guidance Released on Partial Restoration of Ability to Benefit

Jobs for the Future has proposed, as part of the Experimental Sites Initiative of the U.S. Department of Education, to use Pell Grant funding for postsecondary study in career pathways programs by individuals without a high school diploma or its equivalent. Our nation is always exploring ways to use student aid efficiently, and using the funds for students in postsecondary career pathways programs could enable these Pell recipients to accelerate through remedial or developmental education, earn more degrees and credentials, and earn them in less time. Prior evaluations of the career pathways model have shown its effectiveness for helping low-skilled adults progress through adult and postsecondary education coursework to credential attainment.

The experiment would assess whether waiving the high school credential requirement for otherwise eligible individuals would:

  • Help low-skilled adults access and successfully complete postsecondary courses that result in industry-recognized credentials and family-supporting employment.
  • Improve postsecondary access, persistence, and success for participating students.
  • Accelerate credential attainment for participating students through co-enrollment in adult and postsecondary coursework and through other acceleration strategies.
  • Reduce or eliminate the need for remedial course taking.
  • Reduce costs to students and to the public education/training system over time by:
    • Reducing the time required to completion
    • Reducing the need for remediation
    • Increasing persistence, completion, and credential attainment
    • Increasing employment, retention, and earnings in high-demand, family-supporting employment upon completion
  • Increase the return on investment of Pell Grants for participating students over time, through the outcomes described above.

For more information, please download our proposal, or continue reading below. Also check out our blog about restoring the "ability to benefit" provision for Pell.

Jobs for the Future has also joined with the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success (CLASP) and the New America Foundation in submitting proposals to enhance student persistence, improve their career and educational outcomes, and make college more accessible and affordable. See more information about another experimental site around Pell for early college.

Waiver Request

JFF recommends that Section 484 (d) of the Higher Education Act be waived to carry out this experiment, providing an exception to the requirement that all students (with the exception of those who are home schooled) must have a high school diploma or its equivalent to be eligible for receipt of Pell Grants authorized under Title IV of the Higher Education Act (HEA)—provided that such students: prove their “ability to benefit” from participating in postsecondary coursework; and are concurrently enrolled in an eligible career pathways program.

Alternative Approach

In today’s economy, postsecondary education has become a necessity for individuals to secure good jobs and for employers to meet their skill demands. Yet, on July 1 of 2013, students without a high school diploma or its equivalent lost access to all federal financial aid. Formerly, these students qualified for financial assistance through “ability to benefit” (ATB) provisions in Title IV of the HEA, which were eliminated as part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of Fiscal Year 2012. The loss of ATB threatens the economic mobility of low-skilled adults and youth who seek postsecondary credentials to improve their job prospects and undercuts efforts to address America’s skills gap.

We propose that this experiment allow institutions of postsecondary education and consortia of postsecondary education institutions (which may include statewide systems where appropriate) to apply to become experimental sites, so they may prove the effectiveness of eligible career pathways programs (as described below) for students without high school diplomas or their equivalent, when such students have demonstrated their “ability to benefit” from postsecondary education through testing or through the successful completion of six postsecondary credit hours.

Evidence of Effectiveness

Prior evaluations of the career pathways model have shown its effectiveness for helping low-skilled adults progress through adult and postsecondary education coursework to credential attainment. One such evaluation of Washington’s I-BEST programs, carried out by the Community College Research Center, found when studying 31,000 basic skills students, including nearly 900 I-BEST participants, the I-BEST students were more likely than others to:

  • Continue into credit-bearing coursework (78 percent for I-BEST students vs. 61 percent for the comparison group)
  • Earn credits counted toward a college credential (90 percent vs. 67 percent)
  • Earn occupational certificates or associate degrees (55 percent vs.15 percent in the control group)

In January 2013, the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges conducted a return on investment analysis of I-BEST, finding that I-BEST Tipping Point Completers gain an annual ROI of 12.4 percent per year, more than 3 times greater than a traditional investment, reflecting substantial increases in students’ earnings. Building on the I-BEST and Breaking Through models, the Accelerating Opportunity initiative is working with 7 states and 75 community colleges (as of Jan. 2014) to substantially increase the number of adults who can earn a GED and a postsecondary credential simultaneously—allowing previously low-skilled adults to enter the workplace with competitive skills in high-demand occupations. Early data from Accelerating Opportunity show that the initiative is producing similar outcomes as I-BEST: 37 percent of all Accelerating Opportunity students are earning 12 or more college credits. In Kentucky, 68 percent of Accelerating Opportunity students are earning a credential, compared to 9 percent of the comparison group. Accelerating Opportunity 5 Kansas has awarded over 2,700 industry-recognized credentials in the fields of health care (1,660); welding (384); aerostructures (292); manufacturing/machining (251); all other (155). Pell Grant eligibility is critical to the implementation of these very promising initiatives.

Download the full proposal.