By: Priscilla Bustamante
As of July 1, 2012, students lacking a high school diploma or GED no longer qualify for federal financial aid to attend college. Previously, these students could enroll in college-level courses and qualify for the student aid to pay for them by passing the Ability to Benefit (ATB) test or successfully completing six credits. Now the ATB option is no longer available.
It is estimated that some 90,000 community college students (about 1%) qualify for Pell Grants based on ATB provisions, and that middle-aged students and immigrants will feel its effects most. A study form the National Center for Education Statistics found that 67% of first-time college students in 2003 without a high school diploma or GED didn’t earn a college credential within six years. However, in the same amount of time, 66% of students with a GED also didn’t earn a degree or certificate. While the college graduation rates of students without a high school diploma or GED are low, they are not necessarily any different from those students who already have their GED. Moreover, in a U.S. Department of Education study, students who earned their ATB by passing six credits had a slightly higher grade point average than students with high school diplomas.
Many community colleges view enrolling students without a diploma or GED as part of their mission to provide access to higher education for all. If these students now have to get a GED before going to college, with no financial help available to them in the meantime, it is likely that this 1% will decline higher education altogether. Even worse, they may turn to private loans, or to for-profit training institutes which routinely target low-income students without a high school diploma or GED, and coerce them into paying for a degree that is not equivalent to a college credential. While the hope is that this change will encourage students to get their diplomas or GEDs as soon as they can, this option may not be altogether realistic for the students most affected by this federal budget cut.
In the larger scheme of things, the ATB elimination will save about $455 million dollars a year at the expense of a small percentage of people; however, this 1% represents some of America’s most underserved and least privileged students. While BYMC strongly encourages its members to stay in high school or obtain their GED, there are still young mothers who comprise this 1%. Do they not deserve a chance for higher education to create the best futures for themselves and their children? As Daniel Luzer, editor of the Washington Monthly suggests, “If one really wanted to save money in the federal budget through education reform there are other, more dramatic, options. Preventing for-profit colleges from using federal financial aid, for instance, could save about $24 billion.”