Joe Villa at Saddleback College in Mission Viejo on April 11, 2023. (Lauren Justice for CalMatters)
Written by Adam Eshelman | CalMatters
Thousands of California adults who do not have a high school diploma want to take college classes. Unfortunately, these classes are not free, and the lack of a high school diploma cuts off access to most financial aid.
The good news is that there is a solution. The bad news is that most students don’t know about reform, and most college officials don’t understand the laws surrounding it.
Federal law contains a special provision that allows students who lack a high school diploma to access financial aid money that they might otherwise miss out on. Known as the ability to benefit, this provision opens up federal financial aid to adults without high school degrees who enroll in GED and college classes simultaneously.
California community colleges would also benefit financially from the law because it could allow schools to strengthen Register and the number of students on federal aid, both of which are tied to the state’s new college funding formula.
More than 4 million Californians lack a high school diploma, and nearly 340,000 of those adults were taking some form of adult education in 2021, according to the California Community College Chancellor’s Office.
At least as many adults can qualify for this federal aid, but in 2016, 58,000 students in California received federal grants or loans associated with it. Numbers have dropped every year since then, and in 2021, more than 30,000 students from California participated, according to the US Department of Education. This means that up to 90% of eligible adult students did not benefit from this assistance.
Backtracking is the result of a complex balancing act. On the one hand, the federal government has noted a history of poor oversight and “Offense” The ability to benefit, especially by for-profit colleges. On the other hand, more regulation has left community colleges feeling overwhelmed and uninformed.
However, Bradley Custer, senior policy analyst for higher education at the Center for American Progress, said aid use has room to grow.
“There’s no compelling reason why we can’t at least go back to 2016 and the earlier record,” he said.
Deprived of loans and grants
In California, community college tuition is free for eligible low-income students who apply, but even for those who receive a fee waiver, it’s just a fraction of the many costs associated with attending college. Textbooks, transportation and food An average of about $12,000 a year.
That’s why the federal government offers flexible aid to college students — and by being able to take advantage, adults without high school degrees can access that money, too. The Federal Pell Grant, for example, currently offers up to $6,895 per year to eligible students, money that can be spent on things like childcare or rent.
Joe Villa, 67, needs that money. He has six children from two marriages, no high school diploma, and a criminal record that makes even a simple job interview difficult. But he won’t give up.
While serving a 10-year sentence at High Desert State Prison in Susanville, Villa tried to get his GED, but the program closed before he could finish.
Then in 2019, Villa was standing next to a prison staff member when another inmate accused the two of them. Villa intervened to save the employee’s life. Governor Gavin Newsom commuted Villa’s sentence, and he was released in April 2020 — just weeks after the state went into lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“There was no work because of COVID,” he said, “and I think maybe this is the best time to re-educate myself and get my degree.” Through Saddleback Community College in Mission Viejo, Villa immediately enrolled in the GED program and a number of college classes. CalMatters found Villa through a Saddleback official reference.
He tried to apply for federal student aid, but it didn’t get very far because he doesn’t have a high school diploma and doesn’t know anything about providing benefit ability.
Qualifying for an ability to benefit exception is not easy. The student must first enroll in a program to obtain a high school diploma or its equivalent and obtain six credit hours of college courses. Alternatively, they can pass a special test.
Finally, students who want federal dollars must receive certain types of counseling support and may only take a certain set of courses, as interpreted by their college.
The villa checks just about every box. He’s currently enrolled in both the GED category and has already earned over six credits from courses at Saddleback in hopes of earning an associate’s degree and then transferring to a four-year university to study cinematography.
But as of 2020, Saddleback College no longer offers students assistance with the ability to benefit.
Fix “deception” face the consequences
Judy Mortrod, senior technical advisor for the National College Transition Network of World Education, Inc. It’s a trend.
In 1991, Congress put “ability to benefit” into law and slowly added regulations that spelled out how students could qualify, such as through an exam or by earning six credits. In 2012, Congress cut the funding, only to restore it entirely in 2016. Congress then required colleges to provide career counseling and training to these students and to limit them to a certain set of classes and majors that align with the local economy.
Mortrod said that while the original rule was only about student eligibility, the 2016 regulations required colleges to perform certain services, and colleges didn’t know how to interpret them.
“The chain of communication is weak,” said Naomi Castro, senior director at Career Ladder Projects, a nonprofit research group founded by the California Community Colleges Board of Directors. She said many community college financial aid administrators didn’t even know Congress restarted the program in 2016.
Saddleback allowed students who enrolled before 2012 to get the aid at any time, since they were eligible through the old law, but the college didn’t implement the 2016 regulations, which means students like Villa haven’t yet benefited.
The challenge, said Karima Fildos, Saddleback’s academic director, is that the college lacks an “eligible job listing” according to the 2016 regulations. As for why the college had waited years to adopt the regulations, she said she didn’t know and referred CalMatters to the director of the Office of Financial Aid and the dean of enrollment. No one responded to requests for comment.
San Jose City College also did not implement the ability to benefit when it restarted in 2016, according to Takeo Kubo, the director of financial aid.
San Jose City College spokesperson Daniel Garza said the 2016 law required “significant curriculum development efforts,” which he noted could be “absolutely important” at any school. He said he was not aware of the college’s efforts to consider necessary changes to the curriculum when the new regulations were issued.
Some community colleges, including the four Sacramento area colleges in the Los Rios Community College District, have adapted to the new regulations. These colleges currently have 42 students who are assisted by being able to take advantage of a total of 780 students in the system without a high school diploma.
While community colleges have increasingly moved away from the ability to benefit over the years, for-profit colleges have moved toward it.
Nationally, participation in public and private nonprofit colleges has fallen by more than half since 2016 while use in private for-profit schools is up, according to the latest data from the US Department of Education. The department did not respond to requests for recent statewide data.
For-profit organizations and non-profit organizations use different processes as well. Department data shows that public and private nonprofit colleges generally have students who qualify for the ability to benefit by receiving six credits worth of semesters. In for-profit colleges, almost every student qualifies for it through an exam.
“It’s a scam how they get so many people to score high on the exam who somehow couldn’t pass the GED,” Mortrod said.
She said the ministry has introduced several new regulations to clamp down on such “predatory behavior”.
While students generally qualify for ability to benefit through the two national pathways, federal law also allows states to develop their own operations.
In 2019, Mortrod, Castro, and other university leaders sent a proposal to the Community College Counselor’s Office about how California could create such a process of its own. Illinois, Iowa, Minnesota, Mississippi, Washington, and Wisconsin have already done so.
In Wisconsin, for example, adult students at some technical colleges can qualify for assistance by participating in mentoring and working with a teacher or academic advisor, among other criteria.
Individual community colleges are responsible for implementing the provision of benefit capacity for students, said Paul Feist, vice president of the California Community College Counselor’s Office, in a statement.
He said the office would explore creating a “state-defined process” similar to what other countries have done. The office did not provide a timeline for the new state process.
This month, a panel of Saddleback officials met to learn about federal regulations with the goal of offering accessibility assistance this fall.
If they succeed, Villa will have a list of expenses he hopes his assistance will cover. First, he was late in making child support payments. He wants a new apartment and after gaining some weight during the coronavirus pandemic, he needs new clothes to fit.