BY ADAM ECHELMAN | CalMatters
April 13, 2023
Thousands of adult Californians without a high school diploma want to take college classes. Unfortunately, those classes aren’t free, and the lack of a high school diploma cuts off access to most financial aid.
The good news is, there’s a fix. The bad news is most students don’t know about the fix, and most college officials don’t understand the laws surrounding it.
Federal law has a special clause that allows students lacking a high school diploma to access financial aid money they would otherwise miss. Known as the Ability to Benefit, the provision opens up federal financial aid to adults without high school degrees who enroll in GED and college classes simultaneously.
California community colleges also stand to benefit financially from the law because it could allow schools to boost enrollment 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 degree and roughly 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 that many adults could be eligible for this federal aid, but in 2016, just shy of 58,000 students in California actually received federal grants or loans associated with it. The numbers have dropped every year since, and in 2021, just more than 30,000 California students participated, according to the U.S. Department of Education. That means as many as 90% of eligible adult students weren’t taking advantage of this aid.
The decline is the result of a complicated balancing act. On the one hand, the federal government has noted a history of poor oversight and “abuse” of Ability to Benefit, especially by for-profit colleges. On the other hand, more regulation has left community colleges feeling confused and uninformed.
Still, Bradley Custer, a senior policy analyst for higher education at the Center for American Progress, said use of the aid has room to grow.