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Who Benefits?

Although changes in student financial-aid policies for the federal 2012 fiscal-year budget have been widely reported, one change has gone largely unnoticed: the requirement that new students must have a high-school diploma, GED, or completed home schooling in order to receive federal aid. Currently, students without such a credential must take an “ability-to-benefit” (ATB) test to determine if they are ready for college-level work.

If they pass the ATB test, they are eligible for federal student financial aid, including loans and grants. According to a recent article in The Community College Times, about 1 percent of community-college students, or 100,000, are ATB students. In many states, once those students earn a predetermined number of college credits, they are eligible to receive their GED. Meanwhile, they have earned credit towards a college degree and can continue seamlessly through their college requirements.

I have met a few of these 100,000 students. Their stories are varied, but here’s a snapshot. James was laid off from his manufacturing job, having made a decent income despite his lack of a high-school diploma; now he needs re-training. Leon became addicted to drugs at an early age, served some time in prison, and came back to his community hoping to improve himself and his earning potential. Mary had been in an abusive relationship, finally got out, and was earning her human-services degree to help others struggling with abuse. Yvonne and her family moved from Puerto Rico before she completed high school; she had come to the community college to complete her education.

With such students no longer eligible for aid starting July 1, 2012, where will they turn? Perhaps to GED programs, although many of those are not associated with college credit, so the potential connection to postsecondary education would be lost. With a new GED test under development for 2014, uncertainty remains about the availability of test-preparation centers and the type of preparation that will be required.

Also uncertain is the impact on community-college funding, particularly in light of calls for increased retention and completion rates. The current policy environment has been described by Christopher M. Mullin in an American Association of Community Colleges brief as “a silent movement to redirect educational opportunity to ‘deserving’ students.” As the definition of “deserving” becomes more and more narrow, we must ask ourselves as a society: What will happen to those deemed “undeserving”? And just as important: What will be the effects on our society as a whole?

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