For over 25 years, high school dropouts have been able to attend America's technical colleges with financial assistance from the U.S. Department of Education based on a specific provision within the Pell Grant Program. The provision, known as "Ability to Benefit," allows dropouts who are no longer high school-age to demonstrate their readiness for postsecondary education by achieving certain scores on the college's placement exam. Despite its success rate during the past 25 years, new federal legislation eliminates the "Ability to Benefit" option effective July 1, 2012.
High school dropouts are not a monolithic group
Some high school dropouts are quite capable of mastering collegiate-level work at technical colleges. It is important to remember that individuals who do not complete high school have varying skill levels and some might have advanced to the 12th grade before dropping out. Thus, it is unfair to paint them all with the same broad brushstroke. In order to take advantage of the "Ability to Benefit" provision, these students are required to pass a test indicating that they can read, write, and compute at or above the 12th grade level. Passing the test proves that they have the ability to benefit from a post-secondary education and are likely to graduate from identified programs.
Time is the enemy
All students seeking to graduate from a technical college in Georgia must have a high school diploma. Thus, students enrolled under the "Ability to Benefit" provision at Albany Technical College are encouraged to enroll in GED preparation at the same time they enroll in a career preparation program. An ability to benefit student who enrolls in adult education is likely to earn a diploma in a program such as Automotive Technology and earn a GED in 18-24 months. A student who must earn a GED first would likely take 24-36 months to earn both a GED and career diploma. Time is an enemy of students who need to get trained and get to work as soon as possible. Approximately 400 Southwest Georgians met ability to benefit requirements and enrolled at Albany Tech during the 2011 fall semester.
Change is inevitable
Changes to Title IV financial aid eliminating non-high school graduates from PELL are likely to occur. The question is how we should prepare over 21,116* adult non-high school graduates to participate in the inevitable economic recovery. One or two years of post-secondary education are required to compete for most jobs that pay at least a living wage. Four years or more of post-secondary education are required to compete for leadership positions or for continued promotion. The high schools in Albany's metropolitan statistical area graduated approximately 931 in 2011. 332 successfully sat for GEDs at Albany Tech in the fiscal year ended on June 30, 2011. Over 3,300 associate degrees, diplomas and certificates were earned at Albany Tech in FY 2011 with a placement rate of 98 percent. These citizens will push the regional recovery forward by demonstrating to employers an adequate level of literacy and work readiness.
The urgent challenge
Approximately 35,000 adults from Dougherty, Terrell, Calhoun, Lee, Baker, Randolph, Clay, Worth, and Mitchell Counties need to enroll at Albany Tech prior to June 30, 2012 in order to continue to take advantage of Title IV financial aid through Ability to Benefit and to earn a diploma or certificate that will make them more likely to participate in the economic recovery. Citizens who participate in the recovery by earning a living wage tithe more at church, are likely to have employer provided health insurance, spend more on durable goods, commit fewer crimes, help their children make better decisions, have a bank account, and actively participate in the political process.
An economic recovery that includes opportunities for each of us is a recovery that is more likely to sustain all of us. Any economic development strategy for Southwest Georgia must include a definable, predictable, dependable and repeatable dropout prevention plan including adult education opportunities for those over high school age.
Anthony O. Parker, Ph.D., is president of Albany Technical College.