011521AbilitytoBenefitFAQ

Author
Office of the Postsecondary Education
Subject
Ability to Benefit Frequently Asked Questions (EA ID: OPE Announcements-21-02)

This guidance document is issued by the U.S. Department of Education (Department). This document applies to postsecondary institutions, financial aid administrators, and students participating in the Federal Student Aid programs under Title IV of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (the HEA). This guidance document is an extension to the Question and Answer attachment in Dear Colleague Letter (DCL) GEN 16-09: Changes to Title IV Eligibility for Students Without a Valid High School Diploma Who Are Enrolled In Eligible Career Pathway Programs that can be accessed here.

Other than statutory and regulatory requirements included in the document, the contents of this guidance do not have the force and effect of law and are not meant to bind the public. This document is intended only to provide clarity to the public regarding existing requirements under the law or agency policies.

ABILITY TO BENEFIT (ATB) FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS

The Department provides these questions and answers given recent inquiries about the ATB alternatives under section 484(d) of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended (HEA). Section 484(d) allows a student who does not have a high school diploma (or its recognized equivalent), or who did not complete a secondary school education in a homeschool setting, to be eligible for Title IV, HEA student assistance (Title IV aid) through one of the ATB alternatives, but only if the student is enrolled in an eligible career pathway program. For more information, please see DCL GEN 16-09 linked above.

  1. Eligible Career Pathway Program Requirements

    1. Is a student who enrolls in an eligible career pathway program required to complete a secondary school credential?

      No. A student who seeks Title IV eligibility under the ATB alternatives (ATB student) enrolled in an eligible career pathway program must have the opportunity as part of the program to attain a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent.  A career pathway program would be considered eligible for the purposes of the Title IV aid programs, as described in Section 484(d)(2)(F) of the HEA, if students enrolled in the eligible career pathway program do not obtain a high school diploma or its recognized equivalent, even if they have finished the requirements for earning a postsecondary credential.  

      It is important to note, however, that completion of an eligible career pathway program does not enable a student to subsequently become Title IV eligible as a non-ATB degree seeking student unless that student completes the high school diploma portion of the eligible career pathway program or earns a GED certificate or another recognized equivalent of a high school diploma.

    2. How does the Department determine whether a program enables an individual to attain a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent?

      Under Section 484(d)(2)(F) of the HEA, an eligible career pathway program must enable a student to attain a secondary school diploma or its equivalent. In determining whether an eligible career pathway program meets this requirement, the Department considers whether the program provides this opportunity in a way that is reasonably accessible to enrolled students, such as by offering instruction through distance learning (including through synchronous or asynchronous modalities) and offering a range of instructional options that are reasonably convenient for students. The Department will accept reasonable institutional scheduling decisions relating to this matter.

    3. In what instances will an institution’s compliance with the ATB requirements be evaluated in the absence of a career pathway program approval process?

      As we stated in Q & A #7 in DCL GEN 16-09, there is no requirement under the HEA that an eligible career pathway program be approved or endorsed by the Department or that such a program be part of an approved State process, even if such a process exists in the State in which the institution is located.  However, institutions may be subject to State laws or regulations regarding eligible career pathway programs or relevant requirements of their accrediting agency. The Department has not developed a career pathway program approval process but will review the eligibility of these programs through program reviews and audits.

      During any program review or audit of an institution's development and implementation of an eligible career pathway program, the Department will consider whether the institution complied with the relevant statutory provisions, Dear Colleague Letter GEN-16-09, and any other guidance the Department provides. The Department will accept reasonable institutional decisions related to implementing the objectives included within the definition of eligible career pathway programs, such as whether a program adequately combines rigorous and high-quality education, training, and other services that align with the skill needs of industries in the economy of the State or regional economy involved. Institutions are advised that they must label and identify eligible career pathway programs and disclose to students the limitations of enrolling in such programs, especially for those students who do not enroll in courses designed to enable them to earn a high school diploma or its recognized equivalent.

    4. What are some examples of how institutions can comply with the requirement to enable an individual to attain a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent under Section 484(d)(2)(F)?

      In order to enable students to attain a secondary school diploma or its recognized equivalent, institutions could, for example, connect students to an adult education provider in their community, offer coursework to students designed to prepare students to take a general education diploma exam or other State-approved test (for more information please see Volume 1, Chapter 1 of the Federal Student Aid Handbook here: https://ifap.ed.gov/federal-student-aid-handbook/2021FSAHbkVol1), or partner with local or online secondary schools that offer high school diplomas to adult learners or returning students.