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The Year of Career Pathways: Congress Restores the Ability to Benefit

For a Congress that will go down in history as one of the least productive ever, it has produced some pleasant surprises for folks in the workforce development and adult education arenas. When no one was looking this summer, it reauthorized the Workforce Investment Act of 1998, after ten years of stubborn debate and delay. The new Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) bears a strong resemblance to its predecessor, but it does contain some important changes to state planning processes and performance metrics that will make it easier for states be more strategic in their workforce development efforts. The new law also encourages states to adopt “career pathway” strategies that link education and employment services in ways that help people acquire the skills they need to make it in today’s tough labor market.

Late last night, Congress took another step forward in support of career pathway approaches to education and training. On page 926 of the omnibus spending bill, in the section on the Higher Education Act (HEA), is a provision restoring Pell grant eligibility for adult students who lack a high school credential.  Eligibility is limited to students who are enrolled in “career pathway programs” – programs that integrate adult basic education with college-level coursework, lead to an industry-recognized credential, and can be the first step toward an academic certificate or degree. These programs also have to be aligned with local labor markets and provide support services to help students complete.

At first glance it might seem odd to extend financial aid for college to someone who never completed high school. But imagine a person who dropped out of high school in their teens and is now twenty or thirty-something. Since leaving school, they’ve been working, raising a family, and gaining a lot of knowledge and skills along the way. Now they’re ready to move up in their careers but they cannot get that promotion unless they have a college degree. Without the ability to benefit provision, this person would first have to go back and earn a high school equivalency before they could enroll in any college courses, spending time and money to get a credential that, on its own, does nothing to help their job prospects. Under the restored provision, this same person can either pass a test, or successfully complete a couple of college courses, to demonstrate their ability to complete college-level work. Once they do so, they are eligible for a Pell grant, and for the opportunity to start working on that college credential.

Despite a lot of emphasis the last few years on the importance of supporting evidence-based practices in education, they can be hard to find.  Career pathways programs (also called “integrated education and training programs”) are one of the few that have been rigorously tested and found to be effective.  Adults who did not finish high school are more likely to earn a college credential if they are enrolled in a program that integrates the delivery of secondary and postsecondary skills than if they are required to earn a high school credential before enrolling in a postsecondary program.  Creating additional obstacles for people to acquire valuable postsecondary education and skills should never be the point of any education policy. By restoring the ability to benefit provision with appropriate limitations, the Congress is making sure that HEA live up to its purpose of increasing access to higher education.

In a time when Democrats and Republicans can agree on precious little, they are finding common ground on the need to help Americans build postsecondary skills and credentials. The passage of WIOA and the restoration of the ability to benefit are signs of a growing willingness within Congress to align workforce development and higher education policy. As we look around the corner into 2015, there will be many more opportunities to improve connections between education and economic opportunity, including the reauthorizations of HEA and the Carl D. Perkins Act.  So let’s raise a glass to “CRomnibus” of 2014 and hope it is a sign of more to come.

Update: Thanks to Bryce McKibben of ACCT for unraveling the legislative-ese to point out that after July 2015, ATB students will only be eligible for a maximum award of $4,860, which is $870 less than the amount available to fully-eligible students. That's unfortunate for both the students and the institutions that will be stuck figuring out how to implement a two-tiered system. The good news is, $4,860 is much better than nothing - and July is a goodly way off, leaving legislators lots of time to address this wrinkle in the law.