Senate FY13 Labor HHS Bill Would Partially Restore Pell Grant Eligibility for “Ability to Benefit” Students

The Senate Labor, Health and Human Services, and Education (Labor-HHS-ED) Fiscal Year 2013 appropriations bill, (S. 3295), which was approved Thursday, contained a little piece of good news for adult education in the form of an amendment included in the bill by Senator Murray (D-Wash) that would restore Title IV federal student aid eligibility (most importantly, Pell grant eligibility) for “ability-to-benefit” (ATB) students. The Consolidated Appropriations Act of Fiscal Year 2012, (that is, the FY 2012 Federal budget bill), passed back in December 2011, barred individuals without a high school diploma or equivalent from qualifying for this financial aid. In the past, these students could qualify by completing an “ability to benefit” test or by successfully completing six credits towards a certificate or degree.

This eligibility is scheduled to end for all students enrolling in college after July 1st.

Senator Murray’s amendment would not restore Title IV financial aid eligibility for all students, only those enrolled in very rigidly defined career pathways programs. The language in the bill basically mirror previous ATB eligibility requirements but then applies it only to those students enrolled in an “eligible career pathway program.” (See page 133 of the bill.)

In essence, Murray’s amendment protects financial aid eligibility for students enrolled in established programs such as Minnesota’s FastTRAC, Wisconsin’s RISE parternship, and Washington State’s I-BEST program. These programs—especially I-BEST—are the most oft-cited adult education models on Capital Hill. (If there is one thing that Congressional staffers and others policymakers with little knowledge of adult education may have heard of, it would likely be I-BEST.) In addition to the states where these programs are established, groups such as CLASP and Jobs for the Future are highly invested in these models, and those organizations are among the most visible adult education advocates on the Hill. When Congress ended financial aid for ATB students in December, they zeroed in on these models as the basis of their argument to restore financial aid eligibility for ATB students. Politically, it was also in all probability the only realistic strategy of getting any of that eligibility back, since the cost of restoring ATB financial aid eligibility for just those students enrolled in these established programs is probably going to be less than a tenth of the cost of providing full financial aid for ATB students under the old definition. In an excellent fact sheet prepared by CLASP on the subject, they estimated that about 90,000 college students qualified for Pell Grants under the old ATB provision; the number of students who would regain eligibility under Murray’s amendment would be a fraction of that number.

Here is the language in the bill that defines eligible career pathway programs (I’ve bolded what I think are the highlights):

(2) ELIGIBLE CAREER PATHWAY PROGRAM.—In this subsection, the term ‘‘eligible career pathway program’’ means a program that—

(A) concurrently enrolls participants in connected adult education and eligible postsecondary programs;

(B) provides counseling and supportive services to identify and attain academic and career goals;

(C) provides structured course sequences that—
(i) are articulated and contextualized; and
(ii) allow students to advance to higher levels of education and employment;

(D) provides opportunities for acceleration to attain recognized postsecondary credentials, including degrees, industry relevant certifications, and certificates of completion of apprenticeship programs;

(E) is organized to meet the needs of adults;

(F) is aligned with the education and skill needs of the regional economy; and

(G) has been developed and implemented in collaboration with partners in business, workforce development, and economic development.

If passed into law, even this partial restoration seems to me to be a significant win for the adult education community in that it preserves financial aid eligibility for students enrolled in models that have taken the adult education field forward in a promising direction. But it would also narrowly define the “benefit” that a student without a high-school diploma or the equivalent is deemed to be able to gain from a college education, at least for financial aid purposes. Such students would now be deemed to benefit from the education they are receiving only if they are enrolled in a very narrowly defined career pathways program—one that is tied to the skill needs of local employers (see paragraphs F and G, above), not necessarily the needs or interests of the student.