Bradley D. Custer
May 2, 2023
The Ability to Benefit provision for federal financial aid is underutilized but has great potential to increase educational attainment among adults without high school diplomas.
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.