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By Paul Bradley  /  
2015 January 6 - 09:24 pm

Game Changer

Accelerating Opportunity Initiative Boosted by Change in Pell Rules

With the stroke of a pen, President Barack Obama injected new life into an ambitious effort by community colleges help those on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder climb into the middle class.

On page 926 of the omnibus spending bill Obama signed into law last year is a provision little-noticed by major media outlets but critically important to community colleges and their students. The spending bill partially restores the Ability to Benefit (ATB) provision, which until 2012 allowed students who hadn’t received a high school diploma or GED to be eligible for Pell grants if they passed an approved test proving their ability to do college-level work.. The new spending plan, which funds most of the federal government through October, would restore access to Pell for ATB students who are enrolled in career pathway programs.

For staffers at Jobs for the Future, the Boston-based non-profit which designs and drives the adoption of innovative career training models, Congress’ 2012 action, designed to trim Pell grant spending, could not have come at a worse time.

JFF was just launching its Accelerating Opportunity initiative in five states. AO is an effort to increase the ability of adults with low basic skills to earn postsecondary credentials, get well-paying jobs and sustain rewarding careers. The very people who would most benefit for the initiative were now ineligible for Pell.

“We were just on the cusp of getting under way,” said Barbara Endel, JFF’s Accelerating Opportunity program director.

“We lost the ability to help 70 percent of eligible students.” Restoration of ATB reverses all of that and is in AO’s wheelhouse. ATB eligibility is limited to students who are enrolled in “career pathway programs” — programs that integrate adult basic education with college-level coursework, lead to an industry-recognized credential, and can be the first step toward an academic certificate or degree. These programs also must be aligned with local labor markets and provide support services to help students complete.

That’s precisely what AO does. It’s a three-year project, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and others, designed to transform how states work with community and technical colleges to train and educate adult learners who fall below basic literacy levels. There are an estimated 30 million Americans who have neither a high school diploma nor a GED and have low literacy skills. Almost by definition, these students are low-income and can ill afford the expense a college education.

For them, “the restoration of ATB is a game-changer,” Endel said.

The AO program is modeled after widely-praised Washington state’s I-BEST (Integrated Basic Education and Skills Program), which is offered in all of the state’s 34 community colleges. More than 20,000 students have gone through 190 career tracks. Students typically can earn a certificate within a year. I-BEST students share many of the same characteristics as AO students: they have been out of school for a long period of time, often don’t have a high school diploma and in many cases are poor. Many are single parents working low-wage jobs.

Without the ATB provision, these students would first have to earn a GED before they could enroll in any college courses. Under the restored provision, students can pass a test, or successfully complete some college courses, to demonstrate their ability to complete college-level work. Once they do so, they are eligible for a Pell grant and get the opportunity to start working on a college credential right away.

Research has shown that adults who did not finish high school are more likely to earn a college credential if they are enrolled in a program that combines delivery of secondary and postsecondary skills than if they need to earn a high school credential first.

Even without the ATB provisions, JFF has been able to help colleges create career pathways. A report on the AO initiative, conducted by the Urban Institute, showed that Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky and North Carolina have made progress in building these new programs since implementing the AO model in the spring 2012 semester. Colleges have developed career pathways, recruited students and built partnerships with local workforce agencies.

In all, colleges in those states created 112 unique career pathways at 33 community and technical colleges. In 2012, the states received three-year implementation grants. Nearly 5,000 students in the states had enrolled in AO pathways at participating colleges, according to the report. The initiative since has been expanded to seven states and more than 100 campuses.

The most popular career pathways were manufacturing and health care occupations. A key requirement of the AO model is that pathways train students for occupations with local labor-market demand.

The report also said a cultural shift is underway: AO students are identifying themselves as college students, rather than GED or ESL students. Colleges are beginning to view adult education students as an important resource in their community.

“This Year One report covers just the beginning of the major culture changes we are seeing in colleges, but also the personal changes we are seeing with students in the program,” Endel said.

“Many college administrators are seeing first-hand student successes and completion rates. Most importantly students are succeeding in college and getting jobs; that is a tremendous accomplishment.”

Those factors have helped the initiative overcome some resistance from faculty members, some of whom doubted that adult education students could succeed in a college program.

The AO model includes three key components:

• Integration of basic skills and occupational training in career pathways.

• Team teaching with adult education and occupational skills instructors collaborating.

• Enhanced student support services.

The idea is to reduce the amount of time that an adult education student takes to earn a postsecondary degree. The need is urgent; According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, only 2.4 percent of the nation’s 2 million adult education students enroll in, much less complete, a postsecondary degree or certificate program.

“Accelerating Opportunity is a new approach to serving underprepared students,” said Jay Box, the new president of the Kentucky Community & Technical College System, in a news release.

“In Kentucky, we are committed to ensuring students have a good job when they complete their credential or degree. We built our AO career pathways by working with regional employers and using labor market data. This flexibility was central to scaling the initiative to all of Kentucky’s 16 community and technical colleges.”

The initiative has encountered some obstacles. Recruiting students has been a challenge. Colleges are being pressed to gather data on its effectiveness so that it can be sustained over the long term. Financing and cost considerations are always a concern. Partnerships with businesses need to be strengthened.

Still, the goals for the program remain ambitious.

“We’d love to see it on every community college campus in the country,” Endel said. “We think that this can work for any college that wants to help low-skilled workers.”

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