Expanding Opportunity for Low-Income Adults

Published jun. 16, 2014

The FY 2015 Labor-HHS-Education Appropriations bill, which was approved by the Appropriations Subcommittee last week, includes a critical provision authored by US Senator Patty Murray to reinstate Pell Grant eligibility for potentially thousands of low-income, out-of-school youth and adults without a high school diploma or GED who seek new skills and preparation for family-supporting careers. JFF applauds Senator Murray, Subcommittee Chairman Tom Harkin, and Ranking Member Jerry Moran for this partial restoration of the Ability to Benefit provision of the Higher Education Act.

The Federal Pell Grant program provides needs-based grants to low-income college students to promote access to postsecondary education. Unlike loans, Pell grants do not have to be repaid, and they help about 5.4 million students each year. Prior to July 1, 2013, students who did not have a high school diploma or its equivalent, but who proved their “ability to benefit” from postsecondary education by testing into or successfully completing six credit hours of postsecondary coursework, were eligible to receive federal financial aid. The provision that allowed for this, known as Ability to Benefit, was eliminated in the FY 2012 Omnibus Appropriations legislation.

In high-quality career pathways programs, such as Washington State’s I-BEST program and Accelerating Opportunity, an initiative that is operating in 78 colleges in 7 states, students co-enroll in Adult Basic Education and postsecondary coursework, often bypassing developmental education and simultaneously earning a GED. These programs save time and money as students work toward credentials with value in regional labor markets, on an accelerated basis. Recent studies show that students in these programs outperform comparable students in earning college credits and certificates, and in persisting to program completion and good jobs. 

“Any student who wants to pursue higher education should have that chance, but many adults who want to build their skills simply can’t afford it. This provision would expand opportunities for those men and women who want to further their education and skills,” said Senator Murray. “Strong, proven career pathway programs, that combine adult and postsecondary education with effective job training can make all the difference for men and women seeking new skills, new jobs, and new opportunities to succeed in this country. And the Ability to Benefit provisions have been key to the success of integrated education and training programs.”

The inclusion of Ability to Benefit in the Senate subcommittee’s bill is a great first step. JFF strongly urges the inclusion of this provision in any final FY 2015 Appropriations bill that is eventually signed into law. Again, we are grateful to Senator Murray, Chairman Harkin, Ranking Member Moran, and other Members of the Subcommittee for their support of this restoration. If enacted, this provision will allow thousands of deserving, low-income students to earn the education, skills, and credentials required for today’s high-demand jobs. We cannot afford to shut the door to higher education and career opportunities for any students that are ready to move forward with their education.

If you would like to stay informed of further actions you can take to encourage the provision to be included in the final FY 2015 appropriations bill, please email us at info@jff.org

See also our Experimental Site proposal to the US Department of Education regarding Ability to Benefit.

Photograph copyright 2014 Tim Thornberry.