1 in 6 adults lacks basic skills

One in six U.S. adults lacks basic literacy and numeracy skills, according to an international survey by the OECD.

We “have a pretty good handle on what works,” writes Mary Alice McCarthy on EdCentral. Integrating literacy and numeracy instruction into job training has proven effective, as shown by Washington’s I-BEST program.

However, federal policy now denies aid to high school dropouts seeking college job training. Until the law changed in 2012, dropouts could qualify for aid if they showed an “ability to benefit” by passing a basic skills assessment or earning six postsecondary academic credits.

This enabled community colleges to offer integrated education and training programs (like the widely-touted I-BEST) to millions of adults who could not afford college and lacked a high school credential, many of them immigrants and/or working adults. Despite evidence from a federally-funded experiment that adults who earned six credits were just as likely to complete their postsecondary program of study as students entering with a high school credential, this option was eliminated for students in 2012.

In addition, key workforce training programs have lost more than $1 billion—more than 30 percent – in federal funding since 2010.

‘Ability to benefit’ aid could be restored

High school dropouts with college-ready skills lost access to federal student aid in 2012. Now there’s bipartisan support for restoring “ability to benefit” (ATB) aid for students in “career pathways,” reports Inside Higher Ed.

Two years ago, Congress wanted to cut Pell spending and “Democrats wanted to crack down on for-profits,” which enrolled many ATB students. Community colleges, which also enrolled ex-dropouts, didn’t have the political clout to protect ability-to-benefit aid, notes Inside Higher Ed. “Some observers said other higher education associations didn’t lend much support to their cause.”

Much of the impact of the end of ability to benefit was felt in California, according to the state’s community college system. The year before the cut, about 19,000 California community college students without a high school credential sought federal financial aid, according to a 2013 written statement from the system and the California Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

“Economizing by closing the door on the neediest individuals who stand to gain the most from some career-specific postsecondary training just does not make policy, political or economic sense,” according to the statement.

Lawmakers should restore the aid, but limit the program to schools with a good track record, writes Stephen Burd on EdCentral.

While the ATB program benefited many students, it also experienced substantial controversy. In 2009, the Government Accountability Office (GAO), for example, conducted an undercover investigation at a publicly-traded for-profit college and found that the school was helping prospective students cheat on the ATB exam, presumably to pump up its enrollment numbers and collect more federal student aid funds. Test administrators gave the students answers to some of the questions. They also tampered with the test forms – crossing out wrong answers and replacing them with the right ones – to ensure that students passed.

Limiting ATB to schools that meet accountability metrics and have a cohort default rate under 15 percent would prevent abuse, advises the New America Foundation. And it would provide a second chance to people who desperately need more education to earn a living, concludes Burd.

Feds will fund adult ed, job training mix

C.J. Forza, an I-BEST student, is learning auto mechanics at Shoreline Community College near Seattle.

The new workforce bill will make it easier for community colleges to teach basic skills and job skills at the same time, writes Mary Alice McCarthy on EdCentral.

Under the original law, adult education funds could only be used to pay for instruction in basic math and literacy skills leading to the attainment of a high school credential. The funds could not pay for job training. Adult education students had to complete their basic education program before they could even qualify for programs teaching postsecondary job skills, even though the desire to gain skills and credentials for work is probably what brought them to the adult education program in the first place. Not surprisingly, many individuals failed to complete their basic skills program, leaving them without a high school credential or job skills.

Washington state’s I-BEST program has proven successful by putting an adult ed teacher and a job trainer in the same classroom. Students can improve their reading and math skills and work toward a GED while earning an industry-recognized vocational credential. Integrating basic skills instruction with job training increases motivation and persistence, writes McCarthy. “The program has become a national model and has been adopted by states and community colleges across the country.”

But funding has been a problem because of the federal ban on using adult education funds to pay faculty teaching the technical skills. Until 2012, dropouts could qualify for federal aid under the “Ability to Benefit” (ATB) provision, if they could demonstrate the ability to do college-level work by completing six credit hours. But Congress removed the Ability to Benefit provision two years ago, making it hard for low-skilled adults to access job training.

The new workforce law “is moving toward providing greater flexibility to providers of integrated programs for low-skilled adults,” writes McCarthy. However, the adult ed budget is just over $600 million, far too little to meet the need. If ATB isn’t restored, most of the nation’s 36 million low-skilled adults will not be able to improve their reading, writing or job skills.

GED + job training = motivation

Louisiana has shifted adult basic education from high schools to community colleges: Unemployed and underemployed adults can train for skilled jobs while studying for a GED through the Louisiana Community and Technical College System’s (LCTCS) Work Ready U, reports Community College Times.

Most Work Ready U students are training for jobs in construction trades and welding or health care jobs, such as nursing assistants, phlebotomists and pharmacy technicians.

Delgado Community College (DCC) now has 2,500 students in adult basic education, compared to 500 in 2007-08.  DCC is one of 10 Louisiana community colleges in Jobs for the Future’s Accelerating Opportunity program. “There is no reason why a student should need a GED before they start on a career pathway,” said Barbara Endel, national project director for Accelerating Opportunity.

Traditional adult ed courses didn’t provide enough structure and support, said LCTCS Chancellor Joe May.

When ABE was administered by the K-12 education system, it was run on an “open-entry, open-exit approach,” May said. That didn’t work so well with people who had dropped out of school, so there were high attrition rates.

. . . Work Ready U programs limit the number of people who come in at any one time and provide extra counseling and social services. Also, switching GED courses to community colleges allowed for more flexible scheduling, including evening hours, which are more convenient for adults with families and jobs.

“Pushing someone to get a GED requires a ton of effort, particularly for adults with families,” said DCC Chancellor Monty Sullivan. However, it’s worth the effort. More Work Ready U students are enrolling in credit-bearing courses. On average, they are less likely to drop out than regular students.

Last year Congress dropped Pell Grant eligibility for  high school dropouts who passed an “ability-to-benefit” test. To keep Work Ready U on track, DCC turned to foundations to fund tuition aid.

Protecting Pell leads ACCT priorities

Maintaining Pell Grants and restoring Pell eligibility for “ability to benefit” (no high school diploma or GED) students seeking job training lead the Association of Community College Trustees’ top legislative priorities for 2013, the National Legislative Summit decided.

To help students train for skilled jobs, the ACCT called for preserving the Community College and Career Training Grant Program (TAACCCT),  the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act and the Workforce Investment Act.

Investments in direct institutional aid to colleges that serve disproportionate numbers of minority, low-income and first-generation college students are  critical. Congress should continue its support for the Strengthening Institutions, Developing Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs), Asian American and Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions, Tribal Colleges, and Predominately Black Institutions (PBIs) programs.

ACCT also endorsed the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education (ATE) program, which supports science, engineering and math programs at community colleges. “Programs are developed in conjunction with businesses in nanotechnology, alternative energy, advanced manufacturing, and many other critical fields.”

‘Ability to benefit’ students lose federal aid

College doors will shut for the neediest students on July 1, when federal aid is cut to would-be students who lack a high school diploma or GED. Currently, these students can take a basic skills test to prove their “ability to benefit” from college classes or successfully complete six credits. The new federal budget cuts off aid to these students to save Pell Grant money, notes Inside Higher Ed.

College administrators say they worry the new policy will shut out older students seeking training to find a new job, immigrants, and students in states where money for basic adult education has been cut in budget crises.

Either those students will turn to riskier private loans, they say, or — more likely — they’ll just give up on pursuing higher education.

Community colleges and for-profit colleges enroll the most “ability to benefit” students, though the total amounts to only 1 percent of the community college population. The new policy “runs counter to the missions of many of our colleges,” said David Baime, vice president for government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.

Only a third of high school dropouts without a GED earned a college credential in six years, according to a study by the National Center for Education Statistics. That’s no worse than students who’d completed a GED.

“Ability to benefit” students are more likely to default on student loans. As a result two major for-profit educators, Kaplan and Corinthian Colleges, no longer enroll “ability to benefit” students.


GOP bill would limit Pell eligibility

The House Republicans’ omnibus spending bill keeps the maximum Pell Grant at $5,550 for fiscal 2012, but limits Pell eligibility to cut costs, reports Community College Times.

Under the bill, students without a high school diploma, GED or homeschooling certification could not qualify for student aid by passing an “ability-to-benefit” (ATB) test showing they can do college-level work. Graduation rates are poor for ATB students. The change would affect 1 percent of community college students and 3 percent of students at for-profit institutions.

In addition, students could collect grants for only 12 semesters or six years, down from 18 semesters. Although that will affect some part-time students, it’s a very modest proposal compared to an earlier idea that was rejected: Limit Pell Grants to full-time students to raise graduation rates.

Currently, a student automatically receives the maximum Pell grant with family income of $30,000 or less. That would be cut to $23,000.

Overall, the changes would trim $11 billion over 10 years, according to an outline of the bill from House Republicans, which noted the “common-sense reforms” would ensure the program’s financial stability.

The bill also proposes small cuts in job training programs, except for the Veterans Employment and Training Services program, which would receive a small increase.

For-profits cut off low-skilled applicants

With many students defaulting on federal loans, two for-profit educators, Corinthian Colleges and Kaplan will deny enrollment to high school drop-outs who pass a basic-skills test known as an “ability to benefit” test, reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Kaplan discontinued the tests last year at some institutions citing poor student performance. Corinthian announced it will drop the tests because “ability to benefit” students default on their loans at twice the rate of other students.

Starting in 2014, “the Education Department will hold colleges accountable for defaults of student cohorts for three years after the students graduate or leave college, a year longer than under current law,” reports the Chronicle of Higher Education.

About 15 percent of Corinthian’s students in the last academic year used the ability-to-benefit test. The company, which operates more than 100 campuses across North America, estimates it will lose 16,000 potential students and about $120-million in the next fiscal year as a result of this decision, but it will also lose the risk of higher default rates those students would bring. The 15-percent enrollment of ability-to-benefit students was a decrease from 24 percent the previous year, credited to a greater focus on default management at Corinthian, as well as the growth of its online division, which does not enroll such students.

If colleges can’t help ability-to-benefit students succeed, it’s not far to load them up with debt, said Deborah Cochrane, program director at the Institute for College Access and Success.

Last year, a GAO report found “testing officials at a for-profit college helped students cheat on an ability-to-benefit test, the Chronicle reports. The Education Department said it would strengthen monitoring.

People who’ve failed to complete high school or a GED are likely to be weak in persistence as well as reading and math skills. If they’re cut off from for-profit options, they can try adult education or community colleges: Their success rate will be low at lower cost.