Using ATB to help adult students

Christina Robinson of Houston Community College displays a business card that's part of the college's "Change Your Life for $20" campaign to promote, in part, its ATB program. (Photo: Matthew Dembicki)

ORLANDO, Fla. – The U.S. Education Department (ED) is encouraging colleges to tap federal assistance that is designed to help students who don’t have a high school diploma or its equivalent.

After being dropped in 2012 as part of federal budget cuts, the ability-to-benefit (ATB) provisions of the Higher Education Act were fully reinstated in December 2015 with some revisions on eligibility requirements. But creating a process to use ATB, as well as guiding students through that process, can be challenging for colleges. ED officials and representatives from community colleges that use ATB discussed the benefits and challenges of the provisions during a session at the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) annual convention.

To qualify for student aid under ATB, students have three options: complete six postsecondary credits in a career pathway; pass an ED-approved standardized test; or be admitted through a “state-defined process” – for example, a state could design a process that uses multiple measures to assess a student’s ability to benefit from a postsecondary program. (Wisconsin is the first state to apply for this option and is awaiting a response.)

ED officials are referring colleges to a Dear Colleague letter for guidance. The department is also compiling a list of promising practices in ATB to share with colleges, seeking to increase awareness of the provisions.

Last fall, several members of the Senate education committee asked ED to clarify guidance on ATB. They noted that they wanted to ensure students, campus leaders and other officials were aware that students enrolled in eligible career pathway programs can qualify for ATB under certain conditions.

About one percent of community college students lack a high school diploma or its equivalent. Many of these students are enrolled in career pathway programs and could be eligible for federal aid.

Challenges and successes

Last month, ED met with stakeholders to hear about their challenges and promising practices. One of the main questions was regarding standardized testing, said Erin Berg, community college program specialist with ED. Many colleges use Accuplacer as their ED-approved test of choice. But officials question whether some of its questions, such as ones on algebra, are applicable for students looking to tap ATB. Berg noted that colleges and test-makers can ask ED to consider approving other tests.

Most of the colleges using ATB opt to use the six-credit option, but many students struggle to pay for the courses prior to ATB kicking in, Berg said. Some colleges are “braiding” funding sources, such as initially using employment and training funds, while they work toward ATB assistance, she said.

Developing a process for ATB at the college level requires coordinating and planning with internal and external parties, from student aid offices and academic deans, to workforce officials, said Christina Robinson, executive director for adult education and literacy programs at Houston Community College (HCC). Her college focused its ATB efforts on five career clusters: construction technology, business technology, information technology, health care and transportation.

To recruit students into its adult education program, including ATB, HCC started its “Change Your Life for $20,” with the $20 covering processing fees.

Preparing students

Austin Community College (ACC) also developed procedures for its ATB program that included innovative approaches. For example, it crafted contextual adult education courses that help students complete academic classes, said Gaye Lynn Scott, vice president of academic programs. It also includes an eight-week, pre-collegiate seminar that provides college success skills, helps students complete the ATB application process and assists students in applying for federal student aid. The college received a grant from the Texas Workforce Commission that it uses to help students pay for the first few credits of the six credits required before ATB kicks in.

In the 2018-19 academic year, 35 students enrolled in ACC’s ATB program, with 12 students having completed the six-credit requirement, Scott said. Nine more are on track to finish their required credits by June 1. The rest are currently in the seminar.

Reaching rural colleges

At another session at the convention, ED and AACC announced that they will host three meetings focused on helping rural community colleges to better identify, plan and design projects to apply for federal grants. Activities will include workshops as well as an opportunity to hear from various federal agencies about programs and upcoming grants.

The dates and locations are:

Registration details will soon be available.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.