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Ability to Benefit
February 16, 2012 - 10:04pm

I’m told that community colleges will lose the option to admit students on an “ability to benefit” basis as of July 1.

Right now, students who don’t have either a high school diploma or a GED are allowed to take a general skills test for admission. If they score high enough, they are deemed to have the “ability to benefit” from college level work, and are eligible for admission and financial aid. For reasons of its own, the Federal government is not only removing the eligibility for financial aid, but even making entire institutions ineligible for financial aid if they admit any ABT students, even those who are paying their own way.

That may seem reasonable enough at first glance. The argument, to the extent that there is one, is that students who lack either a diploma or a GED should be directed to get one of those first.  Once they have it -- usually a GED -- then they’re fine. (The rule does not apply to high school students in dual enrollment programs. Obviously, if the rule did apply, dual enrollment would cease to exist.)  

But I wonder if they’ve really thought this through.

The collision of this rule with the effects of No Child Left Behind isn’t pretty. In my state, as in many others -- I’m not sure if it applies to all -- high school students have to pass a standardized statewide exam in order to get a high school diploma. If they finish their senior year with passing grades but don’t pass the exam, they don’t get a diploma. Instead, they get a lesser certificate that does not pass muster under the new Federal guidelines.

Sociologists of education will not be shocked to learn that the students who fall into that category are disproportionately low-income, non-white, and male.

Now the students who complete high school but don’t graduate -- a category that exists only because of the effects of NCLB -- will have to get GED’s before enrolling in community college.

And this is a good idea ... why?

I’ll agree without hesitation that it would be great if everyone who completed high school passed rigorous exams with flying colors. It would also be great if ice cream cured cancer.  Some things just aren’t going to happen.  

In the real world, the effect will be to put up yet another obstacle in front of the students who most need social mobility. You went to a crappy high school? Tough break, kid. Now you have to go through yet another program before taking yet another exam before getting into college, where, in all likelihood, you’ll have to start with developmental courses.

Yuck, yuck, yuck.

I foresee a few possible outcomes.

One is a severe and permanent drop in the enrollment levels of the most disadvantaged students. The implications for their future employment levels, salaries, and life options are clear.

Another is a proliferation of quick-fix GED workarounds. If you think the for-profits are predatory now, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.  

It gets worse when you consider the idea of making community colleges the default workforce training centers for their communities, as President Obama suggested in his State of the Union address.  If you have to go to the community college for your post-secondary training, but you can’t get in without a GED and you don’t already have one, then the hurdle to economic mobility just got that much worse.

Honestly, I don’t know what problem they’re trying to solve with this.

A more productive approach would be to fund studies on ATB students, and to find the programs in which they succeed at the highest rates. What do those programs do right?  If the problem is a perceived lack of completion, then let’s address that. But addressing it by putting up even more hurdles doesn’t make sense at all.

 

 

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