Seeking guidance on ‘ability-to-benefit’ rules

Two members of the Senate committee that oversees education have asked U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos to clarify guidance on the so-called “ability-to-benefit” (ATB) provision, which affects students who can benefit from a college education but do not have a high school diploma or its equivalent.

The senators want to ensure that students, campus officials and others are aware that students enrolled in eligible career pathway programs, as defined in law, can qualify under certain conditions for federal student aid even if they lack a high school diploma.

“Stakeholders tell us that the vast majority of adults without a high school diploma have little to no awareness that they can enroll in college or postsecondary training while — rather than before — pursuing their GED or equivalent high school credential,” according to the Sept. 20 letter signed by Sen. Michael Enzi (R-Wyoming) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-Washington) of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

The letter added that the department should issue guidance that serves as a “simple, clarifying resource for implementing ATB” at higher education institutions, which should restate the updated definition of a career pathway program and contain frequently asked questions and answers.

A twisting road

The lawmakers’ concern over the perceived lack of awareness about aid eligibility for ATB students reflects the major changes in ATB policy this decade. Prior to 2012, students could qualify for federal aid either by accruing six college credits or by achieving a certain score on a government-approved test. However, the latter option proved vulnerable to fraud, according to the Education Department’s (ED) Inspector General.

In 2012, congressional appropriators eliminated ATB eligibility entirely, spurred by a huge shortfall in the Pell Grant program. (The American Association of Community Colleges advocated unsuccessfully against this change.) However, through the efforts of Sen. Murray and other legislators, ATB eligibility was restored in 2015 for students who complete six credits (excluding developmental education) at a participating institution, or had a passing score on one of the approved tests and who are enrolled in an eligible career pathway program. But, it’s uncertain how many students the new the eligibility will affect.

Stakes for our students

The varying enrollment policies of community colleges mean that ATB eligibility issues affect campuses differently. Data suggest that approximately 1 percent of all community college students lack a high school diploma or its equivalent. Many, if not all, of these students are enrolled in career pathway programs and could be eligible for federal aid, so campuses should get the word out to these students.

AACC hopes that the secretary and ED will do everything they can to foster the use of the career pathways option for ATB students.

AACC also continues to advocate for restoring ATB eligibility to students enrolled in all Title IV-eligible programs. Congress can do this by reauthorizing the Higher Education Act – but that won’t occur until well into 2019, at the earliest.

About the Author

David Baime
is senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.