What is Ability to Benefit?

Ability to Benefit (ATB) is a national policy through which students lacking a high school credential can prove their "ability to benefit" from college by taking a general skills test. If students perform well on these standardized exams, they can enroll in college despite never having earned the necessary credential (usually a high school diploma or a GED). ATB also allows students who do well on these exams to receive  financial aid . In 2012, there were approximately 82,000 ATB students in public two-year colleges (about 1% of the total community college population), though not all of them were receiving financial aid. A longitudinal study from the National Center for Education Statistics found that only 33% of students admitted under ATB in 2003 had earned a college credential by 2009.1 Ability to Benefit was eliminated by Congress in 2012 to cut spending on Pell Grants, but in late 2014 it made a comeback.

Ability to Benefit is Back

The reinstated ATB is a modified version of the original program, with decreased funding and limitations for student eligibility - it's now only for students who enroll in "career pathways programs." This is where the majority of ATB students were concentrated previously, so that was not a significant modification. Many community colleges were a primary force for bringing ATB back, as it increases the pool of individuals who can enroll at such schools.

An Up-Close Look at ATB

Upon closer inspection though, it's questionable whether the financial incentives of ATB ever produced the outcomes that schools were hoping for. To start, today's modified ATB policy leaves a big gap for students. Because there is less money allocated for this program, students often still can't pay full tuition even when they receive financial aid. Additionally, the ATB functions as a standardized test. Similar to other standardized tests, like the SAT or the GED, standardized tests do not bode well for many students, especially those who have historically struggled with academics. ATB is supposed to give students who never completed high school the opportunity to further their education. In practice ATB may not be the "silver bullet" community colleges hope it is for enrolling more students.

One of it's weaknesses is that is fails to help students prepare for the higher ed experience. A standardized test does not get students ready for college-level coursework or the time commitment of school. A traditional school environment didn't work for this population the first time, so throwing them back into the same system will likely yield similar results. Colleges are going to be highly scrutinized on learning outcomes and graduation rates of their new students with the reinstatement of this policy, and ATB provides schools with students who are not prepared for the realities of school. Our new ATB policy is not sustainable.

What Students Really Need

Instead, students and colleges need a program that helps students get in the habit of prioritizing school, and also reintroduces the core academic principles they'll need to succeed in community college. Penn Foster's High School Completion is an example of this kind of program. Through the process of earning their high school diploma, students are able to acclimate to being in school again. There are many skills successful students demonstrate and a high school completion program is an excellent space for these skills to be developed. Some areas in which students going back to school should be proficient include:

  • Scheduling
  • Coming up with a plan and sticking to it
  • Familiarity with technology
  • Seeking help when necessary
  • Writing and grammar

The Penn Foster High School Completion program, with it's independent study format, creates a space for students to practice and refine these skills with the supervision and support of an in-class instructor. Therefore, when they do matriculate into community college, they possess the skills and knowledge they need to be successful. Enrolling more students who are well-versed in the techniques required for academic success will not only help community colleges yield better results, but it will also help their students. They will be better prepared for higher education and therefore will be more likely to excel in school and beyond.

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Sources: Photo (1) No Diploma, No GED, No Aid (2) The Year of Career Pathways: Congress Restores the Ability to Benefit (3) Ability to Benefit, Again?