What the President’s FY 2015 Budget Proposes for Adult Education

(Updated Below)

Earlier this month I was in Massachusetts co-leading a presentation on federal adult education policy. (I’m doing another of these in Maryland in May, and that may be it for a while, due to a recent job switch). My part of the session looked at the current state of federal funding for adult education.

A big chunk of that discussion concerned the President’s Fiscal Year 2015 budget proposal, and since the Secretary of Education will be taking questions before committees in both the House and the Senate this week on that proposal, I figured now was a good time to post my long-promised summary of that proposal as it relates to adult education (most of what I have to say about FY 2014 has already been posted previously on this site—here and here, for example).

In my view, there are three major points to be made about the President’s proposal as it pertains to adult education:

1. It Contains NO Increase to State Formula Grant Funding

For the first time in a long time since his FY 2013 budget, the President declined to propose any increase to the budget for WIA Title II/AEFLA Adult Education State Grants from the year before. (These are grants that states use to fund adult education programs.) The administration’s decision not to propose an increase is significant because last year’s final FY 2014 appropriation extended a significant reduction in funding for this line item: sequestration had already cut it down to $563,955,000 for FY 2103, and for FY 2014, Congress decided not to restore any of that funding in the Bipartisan Budget Act.

Last year, for FY 2014, the President had proposed $594,993,000 for Adult Education State Grants, which would have restored funding to the FY 2012 level, before sequestration cuts went in to effect. But for FY 2015, the President decided to leave the line item at its sequestered level of $563,955,000.

As usual, a portion of this funding would continue to be set-aside specifically for English Literacy/Civics Education State Grants ($70.8 million in this case)—a set-aside not included in the WIA authorizing language, but one that has been approved by appropriators for many years.

2. It Contains a Major Increase to National Leadership Activities to Support a New Competitive Grant Program

Adult education was not entirely passed over when Congress restored some of the sequestered funds lost in FY 2013. The Adult Education National Leadership line item actually got a bump, from $10,712,000 to $13,712,000.

For FY 2015, the President proposes an increase to this line item by another $20 million, in order to support a new “Skills Challenge” grant program, which is supposed to support partnerships among states, adult education providers, institutions of higher education, and private organizations to “develop and scale up evidence-based models that combine basic skills education with training so that participants have access to high-quality programs that equip them with the skills necessary to find jobs in high-demand fields or transition into credit-bearing postsecondary education and training” and “build evidence of effective practices through rigorous evaluations.”

Essentially, instead of proposing an increase to formula funding to all states to support local programs (which due to budget cuts and inflation serves about half as many adult learners as it did about a decade ago), the President is suggesting an increase for (in effect)  some states/programs via competitive grant funding.

It’s worth noting that even if you assume that a significant chunk of this funding would support direct services, it would (a) be unequally distributed across the states (that’s inherent to a competitive grant program); and (b) not make up for the roughly $31 million that’s been lost for direct services since FY 2012. In other words, it puts back only $20 million of the $31 million that was lost to the overall adult education budget due to sequestration, and puts it into a new competitive grant program, instead of restoring formula funding.

The case for this new competitive program in lieu of new formula funding seems to boil down to the argument that successful models developed under such a program will inspire  increased support for baseline formula funding in the future. Will this work? New innovations certainly could spur Congress into appropriating more funds for adult education in future years, although fiscal belt-tightening across all federal programs is a more likely scenario in the coming years. On the other hand, it’s not as difficult to imagine consortiums formed under such a program inspiring deeper, long-term investments at the state and local level.

Here’s a chart that shows the President’s budget proposals for AEFLA and Congress’s actual appropriation over the last four years (click on it to see it full-size):

Annual Expenditures for WIA Title II

3. It Calls for Partial Restoration of Pell Grant Eligibility for Those Without a High School Diploma (aka “Ability to Benefit)

The key word above is partial.

A little background is in order here. Back in 2011, Congress decided to eliminate a long-standing policy that enabled thousands of low-income students to attend college via Pell grants without first having obtained a high school diploma, provided that they passed an independently administered test or successfully completing six college credits—either of which were deemed sufficient demonstration of an “ability to benefit” (known as ATB) from a college education. The President’s budget proposes reinstating ATB eligibility for Pell Grants, but only for adult students who are dually-enrolled in adult education and postsecondary education as part of an approved career pathway to work. This proposal, which mirrors appropriations language that has been floating around the Senate since ATB eligibility was eliminated, is a much narrower eligibility definition than prior policy.

Note that the return of ATB under this scenario represents a shift in the way in which a student is deemed to be fit for financial aid. Under the old rules, eligibility was determined by the student demonstrating a certain minimal level of academic aptitude. Under the “new” version of ATB, eligibility would also require that the student be enrolled in a certain approved course of study, i.e. an “approved” career pathway program.

At least one group seems to believe that the return of ATB is intended to be narrowly tailored to support the I-BEST program in Washington State. See: NAICU Washington Update: President Sends Budget to Congress Kicking off FY 2015 Budgeting Process: “Ability to Benefit (ATB): Reinstates ATB eligibility for Pell Grants only for adult students who are dually-enrolled in adult education and postsecondary education as part of an approved career pathway to work. This was proposed by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) in the appropriations process last year, and reflects a specific community college program in Washington State.” (my emphasis)

Whatever the reason, if you are a student who other wise would have been eligible for ATB eligibility under the prior laws but don’t have access to a career pathways program that meets federal government approval, you are out of luck under the President’s proposal.

In March, Representatives Chris Gibson (R-NY) and Carolyn McCarthy (D-NY) sponsored a sign-on letter requesting full reinstatement of Pell Grant and federal student aid eligibility for Ability to Benefit (ATB) students.

What’s Next

The FY 2015 appropriations process is now underway, with the House and Senate Appropriations Committees holding oversight hearings on the President’s request. (As I noted above, Secretary Duncan will be testifying on it this week.) The President’s proposal stands no chance of being enacted, but does lay out the Administration’s priorities and set some of the discussion points for the budget and appropriations process.

For adult education, the President’s proposal for National Leadership “challenge grants” is probably the least likely piece to get through. The Pell modification probably has the best chance.

Advocates in the House have expressed concerns over the adult education budget. Representatives Phil Roe (R-TN) and Ruben Hinojosa (D-TX), co-chairs of the House Adult Literacy Caucus, have circulated a “Dear Colleague” letter requesting the chairs of the Labor-HHS-Education to provide “adequate funding” for Adult Basic Education in FY 2015. (I can’t find a link to the final letter at the moment—the link above is the letter that went out to members for their signature.)



I found language about the President’s proposal to semi-restore ability-to-benefit in three of the budget justification documents, for those who are curious:

Education Overview (Page 71) “…the Administration will provide Pell Grant eligibility to students who are co-enrolled in adult and postsecondary education as part of a career pathway program to allow adults with-out a high school diploma to gain the knowledge and skills they need to secure a good job.”

Justifications of Appropriation Estimates: Student Financial Assistance  (Page Q-17) “The 2015 Budget proposes to make two small, but important, reforms to the Pell Grant program. The first reform strengthens academic progress requirements in the Pell Grant program, to encourage students to complete their studies on time. Second, it would reinstate the Ability to Benefit provision for students enrolled in eligible career pathways programs, enabling adults without a high school diploma to gain the knowledge and skills they need to secure a good job.”

Justifications of Appropriation Estimates: Student Aid Overview  (Page P-4) “The Budget proposes to make two small reforms to the Pell Grant program. First, it will strengthen academic progress requirements in the Pell Grant program in order to encourage students to complete their studies on time. Second, it would reinstate the Ability to Benefit provision for students enrolled in eligible career pathways programs, which will allow adults without a high school diploma to gain the knowledge and skills they need to secure a good job.”


UPDATE 4/29/14: Added a chart to hopefully make the discussion above a bit more comprehensible.

Also, a video archive of Sec. Duncan’s testimony this morning before the House Education and Workforce Committee is now available. I haven’t had time to watch it (if you have, feel free to comment below), but reportedly the Secretary noted during his testimony the administration’s support for reinstating ability-to-benefit Pell Grant eligibility for students who are enrolled in career pathway programs.