Pell Grant “Experimentation” May Go Beyond Expanding Access to the Incarcerated

Big news today in the world of correctional education, with the Wall Street Journal, Politico, and others reporting that the Obama administration is about to announce an “experimental” program to expand incarcerated adults’ access to Pell grants. (Congress made federal and state prisoners ineligible for federal financial aid back in the mid-1990s.) According to these sources, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is scheduled to make “an important announcement related to federal aid” during a visit to a Maryland prison on Friday.

While the attention this week is on incarcerated adults, the administration’s Pell “experimentation” may eventually extend into other areas. Speculation yesterday about the administration announcing a plan to restore access to Pell for prisoners was prompted by a speech Duncan gave earlier in the day — while mainly focused on higher education outcomes, there was a brief aside towards the end about how the administration was looking to “experiment” with expanded Pell access. But that part of the speech, excerpted below, was not only about expanding Pell access to incarcerated adults:

We want to do even more, developing experimental sites that will make Pell grants available to programs that award credentials based on demonstrated competency, to incarcerated adults seeking an independent, productive life after they get out of jail, and to adult learners who enroll in short-term certificate programs that provide meaningful job-ready training. (my emphasis)

So stay tuned. The news this week may be the first of several Pell announcements with significant implications for adult learners.

Additional Notes on the FY 2015 Spending Bill

Although not without considerable last-minute drama, Congress did manage to pass a spending bill before leaving town this week. Dubbed the “Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015,” the legislation will fund most of the government though the remainder of the fiscal year ending September 30th, 2015. (The exception: The Department of Homeland Security, which was funded only through February, which provides Republicans in the next Congress with some leverage to block President Obama’s executive order on immigration.)

There was never any serious doubt that the small adult education increase was in any jeopardy during the last-minute negotiations, and despite the drama, it would have been hugely surprising if the bill itself failed to pass before Congress adjourned.

As I mentioned in an earlier post, the Act also includes a partial reinstatement of Pell Grant and other federal student aid eligibility for “ability-to-benefit” (ATB) students who lack a high school diploma.

A couple of additional notes on the legislation now that the has been enacted:

First, I’ve updated my earlier table of recent actual and proposed federal funding amounts for adult education under WIA and its successor, WIOA.

Adult Education Recent Federal Funding - Updated

As you can see above, while any increase in federal funding can be characterized as something of a win right now, the $5 million increase in state grants under WIOA for adult education is far short of where funding for this line item was in FY 2012. A better measure of our success in advocating for more federal funding in recent years, in my opinion, is to look at how we stacked up against other programs—particularly education programs—over the last two years of sequester relief under Ryan -Murray, when there was an opportunity to restore funds lost to the sequester. Some programs have received nearly a full restoration, some have fared worse. I don’t have time to do that analysis myself. But that’s where I suggest looking in order to begin to assess the field’s advocacy efforts during the “sequester era.”

A couple of notes about ATB (and thanks to my colleagues who follow Pell closely for their insights): The reinstatement of ATB eligibility goes into effect immediately. In order to qualify, students have to be enrolled in career pathway programs and prove their ability to benefit from higher education, either by passing an exam or successfully completing six credit hours.

I also dug up the language in the bill that defines an “eligible career pathways program” (it’s on page 376-377). To be considered such a program for purposes of ATB eligibility, it must be 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.

I’m still not entirely sure how students and financial aid folks go about establishing that a program qualifies under those rules, however. It seems to me that some of these elements are open to debate. (How does one demonstrate definitively that a program is “aligned with the education and skill needs of the regional economy,” for example?) But financial aid is not an area of expertise for me. If anyone has a better understanding of this, I’d love to hear from you in the comments.

Also, note that the size of the Pell grant that ATB students will be eligible for varies based on their enrollment date. Those who enroll in a program before July 1st, 2015, will be eligible for the maximum Pell Grant award (which is currently estimated to be going up to $5,830), while those enrolling after that date will be limited to only the maximum discretionary Pell Grant award of $4,860.

One last item that is important to many adult education students and programs: the Act also extended authority and funding for the TANF block grant through September 30th, 2015. TANF has been due for reauthorization since 2010, by the way, and is one of those non-WIOA piece of legislation I advise adult education advocates to follow and weigh in on in the months ahead.