Introduction and summary
State leaders have identified workforce development as a top priority for 2023.1 There is a great need for more educated workers to fill essential jobs across education, health care, leisure and hospitality services, trade, and beyond.2 Standing in the way of finding those workers and filling those jobs is the fact that almost 9 percent of U.S. adults 25 years old and older have not completed high school; add to that number the additional 43 percent of that cohort without a college credential.3 Adults with the lowest educational levels have the highest levels of unemployment4 but face a shrinking job market, as most new and better-paying jobs require a college degree.5 To meet workforce demands, close educational attainment gaps, and improve the economic security of millions of workers, adults will need help to pay for the education they need. The good news is that there is an underappreciated federal program that can help: the Ability to Benefit (ATB) provision of the Higher Education Act.6
ATB offers adults without a high school diploma access to federal financial aid—including Pell Grants, work-study, and loans—to complete both a high school credential and a postsecondary credential. However, ATB can only be utilized if institutions offer qualifying programs, and if students know about them.7 Despite the potential of this provision to help many more adults complete their education, enrollment through ATB at public colleges and universities is in decline.8 To reach more adult learners, policymakers and higher education leaders should invest in the policies, funding, and programs needed to revitalize ATB.
This report outlines the strategies that the U.S. Department of Education, states, and institutions should consider to expand the availability and effectiveness of ATB.
Ability to Benefit
To be eligible for federal financial aid, a student typically must have a high school credential, but those who do not can still qualify for aid.9 Under the Ability to Benefit provision, adult students can get federal financial aid to pay for college-level coursework and living expenses at the same time as they work toward earning their high school credential;10 this is why ATB is sometimes referred to as “adult dual enrollment.”11 To qualify, students must prove that they have the “ability to benefit” from postsecondary education through one of three paths:
- Students can demonstrate their ability to benefit by passing a standardized test approved by the U.S. Department of Education.12 The tests measure reading, writing, and math skills, and non-native English speakers may have to meet additional testing requirements.
- Students can complete six credits or 225 clock hours of college-level coursework that are applicable toward a degree or certificate offered at the institution where they want to use federal financial aid. Students cannot yet use federal financial aid to pay for these courses.
- The last path to ATB eligibility is the state-defined process, which has only recently become available in certain states. Through this path, state entities—such as the state higher education agency or a community college system—adopt a plan for certain institutions within the state to enroll and assist students who do not have a high school credential. Currently, this includes supports such as assessing the student’s capabilities and providing orientation, counseling, and tutoring services.13 Once a state’s plan is approved by the Education Department, a student can enroll in an approved program at a participating college and receive federal financial aid through ATB.
Students who demonstrate the ability to benefit through any of these three paths can begin receiving federal financial aid once they enroll in an eligible “career pathway” program. A career pathway is “a combination of rigorous and high-quality education, training, and other services,” with seven required elements defined in federal law.14 For example, the certificate or degree program must align with the local economy’s needs, and colleges must offer career and academic counseling to students. Importantly, colleges must also “enable” a student to complete both a high school and postsecondary credential within the program.
If a student completes a high school credential—with the support of ATB or otherwise—the student becomes eligible for federal financial aid without needing to meet the requirements of ATB.15
ATB program spotlight
ATB programs vary by structure, type of credentials offered, and method for qualifying. For example, the Career Pathways program at Southern Technical College in Florida offers students the Wonderlic Basic Skills Test, an approved assessment through which they can gain federal financial aid eligibility. After passing the test, students can enroll in one of four 10-month diploma programs that the college has determined to be eligible career pathways: electrical technology; heating, ventilation, and air conditioning; medical assisting; or veterinary assisting. While enrolled in the college courses, students also attend a course to prepare them for the GED test and receive support from academic advisers.16
Students have more options in Washington’s community and technical college system. Testing, six credits, and the state-defined plan are available for ATB eligibility, and students can use federal and state financial aid to pay for classes.17 Through the state-defined plan, students qualify for ATB by enrolling in two concurrent programs. The first is an Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training Program (I-BEST), where two instructors team-teach basic skills and job training within the same courses.18 Depending on the college, students can choose from a wide range of certificate and degree programs in health care, the trades, technology, hospitality, and academic programs designed for transfer to a university. The second program is High School+, which awards high school diplomas based on prior learning, life, military, and work experiences.19 As such, the credits, skills, and experiences gained in the I-BEST courses count toward the high school diploma earned through High School+.
ATB is underutilized
Recent U.S. Department of Education data illustrate that ATB is underutilized and in decline.20 For example, in 2016, more than $1 billion in federal aid was disbursed to about 124,000 students who qualified for ATB by passing a test or completing six credits. By 2021, the most recent year for which data are available, only $447 million in aid was disbursed to just under 59,000 students.21 While the COVID-19 pandemic may have contributed to the declining enrollment numbers—as it did across higher education more broadly22—the downward trend was set well before 2020.23 Additional research is needed to understand the causes of the trend and how to reverse it.
Moreover, there is wide variation in ATB participation by state. California had the largest share of ATB enrollment in 2021, with more than 30,400 students enrolled across 174 institutions.24 The states with the second- and third-highest shares, Florida with 12,100 students and New York with 3,100 students, enrolled far fewer students than California. More concerning, 25 states enrolled fewer than 100 students each, and 25 states had 10 or fewer institutions of higher education with ATB students.
Missing from these data are other key indicators of who is and is not accessing ATB, particularly by age, race, and institution type. More targeted data could help policymakers diagnose gaps in program availability and identify which groups of adult learners need additional outreach.
Improving Ability to Benefit
Given that in the recent past, adults without high school credentials accessed federal financial aid through ATB at much higher rates than they do today, there is great potential to bring more adults into higher education through this provision. However, the Education Department, states, and institutions must first invest in policies, funding, and programs to make ATB more widely available, known, and accessible to adult learners.
Expand state financial aid
Currently, as noted above, when students want to access ATB by completing six credit hours of college-level coursework applicable toward a degree or certificate, they cannot use federal financial aid to pay for those hours. But they may be able to access other federal, state, and institutional funding. For example, some institutions use Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) funding to cover the cost of those six credits.25 In Washington, students can use the Washington College Grant, a state financial aid program, to pay for the six credits.26 However, these options may not be the norm. According to previous research conducted by the author, 44 percent of the more than 350 state financial aid grant programs require recipients to have completed a high school credential to be eligible for financial aid.27 This is even the case in “reconnect” programs specifically created to improve adult postsecondary attainment, such as the new program in Michigan28 and the one proposed in Massachusetts.29
Similarly, college “promise” programs30—including state financial aid, institutional aid, and locally funded scholarships—could help students pay for the six credits. Yet many of these programs also require high school completion or enrollment in college immediately after high school.31 A pilot is underway using foundation funding to explore how promise program funding in Illinois and Michigan could be used to pay for ATB students’ six credits.32
To facilitate ATB eligibility, states should ensure that adults without a high school credential can use need-based grants to pay for the required first six credits.
Create more state-defined processes
For many adults, passing a single standardized test is unattainable due to barriers such as stigma about standardized tests, bias in standardized tests, English language challenges for non-native speakers, challenges for adults with disabilities, testing costs, and more.33 Similarly, paying out of pocket for six credits may also be unaffordable for many adults. The state-defined process is the final alternative to gaining ATB eligibility, but it is not available in most places.34 Although this option has existed since 1992, it was not until 2019 that states began submitting their plans to the U.S. Department of Education for approval.35 Today, only six states have approved plans,36 the first of which were Wisconsin37 and Washington.38 Efforts are underway in California, North Carolina, and Florida to develop state-defined processes,39 and if more states do so, more adults will have access to federal financial aid.
Improving the approval process may encourage more states to pursue this option. Citing “confusion as to how to craft a successful State process,” the Education Department used the negotiated rulemaking process in early 2022 to amend its ATB regulation.40 The department’s final proposal, which had not been released at the time of this publication, is expected to clarify the approval process and data requirements for states submitting plans. As a result, more states may find success in getting their plans approved once the final regulation is implemented.
Promote Ability to Benefit
Despite its potential, ATB has a visibility problem. To improve student access, ATB needs more and better promotion.
In 2021, 900 public and private institutions enrolled ATB students,41 just 23 percent of all degree-granting institutions that year.42 Institutions—particularly the more than 1,000 two-year colleges where many adults are likely to enroll43—must first be aware of ATB and then commit to offering eligible career pathways.
For its part, the Education Department should identify regions where adult educational attainment most needs improvement and promote ATB to area colleges. For example, the department could provide focused technical support on creating career pathways, identifying sources of funding, and meeting federal requirements on data reporting. The forthcoming regulation described above, which would also create new requirements for institutions to demonstrate that their eligible career pathways comply with the federal definition, will present a significant opportunity to promote ATB.44 By rolling out the regulation with training opportunities for institutions, the department could encourage more institutions to offer ATB.
Likewise, institutions have a critical role to play in ATB promotion.45 Adults considering completing a postsecondary credential are most concerned about their ability to pay for college and finding a program that meets their needs.46 These individuals report learning about college programs by word of mouth from friends and family and from television and billboard ads.47 Unfortunately, these prospective students are not well-equipped to assess whether a college offers high-quality programs or to identify which colleges are for-profit institutions.48 The for-profit college industry’s willingness to spend more on advertising than public and nonprofit private institutions49 may explain why it is the only sector in which ATB enrollment has grown since 2016,50 even though ample evidence shows that for-profit colleges do not serve adult learners well.51
To reach prospective students and to compete with for-profit colleges, public community colleges especially need to invest in advertising that reflects the diversity of adults in the community and offer opportunities for direct contact with college experts.52
Improve data collection and availability
Financial aid administrators assign codes to students who qualify for federal aid through ATB. That means institutions and the Education Department can learn a lot about the characteristics and outcomes of ATB students. Much of what is known about ATB students comes from government reports and data requests, but this information is incomplete. The department’s research unit—the National Center for Education Statistics—should regularly publish data tables on the characteristics of ATB students disaggregated by race and ethnicity, sex, age, state, institution type, and more. Learning about who is accessing ATB can reveal adult populations in need of better access. In addition, the center should conduct a study of ATB student outcomes and program best practices to ensure that institutions know the best possible strategies for increasing adult educational attainment.
ATB is ripe for innovation
A consequence of ATB’s obscurity may be that it is overdue for innovation. The reforms presented above may inject new life into ATB, but there is still more to explore to reach ATB’s potential. For example, Congress should consider adding more alternatives to ATB eligibility, especially if more states do not create state-defined processes. Policymakers should explore high school dual enrollment, prior learning assessments, foreign credential evaluation, WIOA integrated education and training programs,53 and other strategies to supplement the three existing options.
There may also be a new opportunity to improve high school and postsecondary educational attainment among incarcerated adults. In 2014, 30 percent of adults in prison had not completed a high school credential, compared with 14 percent of adults in the general population.54 Following a major policy change in 2020, nonprofit colleges and universities will soon be able to offer more Pell Grant-funded programming to incarcerated students.55 Students in prison must meet the same eligibility requirements for financial aid as other students, including high school completion, which will present a major barrier to accessing the new prison education programs. As institutions design their new programs, they should also consider how to make them eligible career pathways for ATB purposes. By partnering with the educational providers already offering high school completion programs inside prisons,56 colleges can use ATB to help incarcerated adults complete both a high school and a postsecondary credential,57 which could greatly improve their post-release outcomes.58
An incomplete education stops too many adults from seizing job opportunities that would benefit them, their families, their communities, and the larger economy. With a high school credential, adults can access federal financial aid to pay for college through the Ability to Benefit provision. A forthcoming regulation may boost college ATB programs, but the Education Department, states, and institutions must do more to ensure that adult learners have access to the funding and programs necessary to complete high school and postsecondary education credentials.
The author thanks Judy Mortrude and Marina Zhavoronkova for offering insights on this report.