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An obscure option could help Californians without high school diplomas pay for college — if it survives

Millions of adults without diplomas miss out on Pell grants to pay for college. California’s community colleges aim to fix that. Laney College in Oakland.
Semantha Norris
Millions of adults without diplomas miss out on Pell grants to pay for college. California’s community colleges aim to fix that. Laney College in Oakland.

Adults without high school diplomas can attend community college, but few of them receive financial aid, even when they’re eligible. A new proposal from Gov. Gavin Newsom and California Community Colleges Chancellor Sonya Christian aims to fix that. But it may be too late.

Many adults in California are missing out on financial aid for college — and for years, the state declined to help.

The most popular form of federal financial aid, the Pell grant, provides low-income students with around $7,000 a year— money that can go towards all kinds of expenses, such as tuition, rent or transportation. Typically, college students need a high school diploma or equivalent to qualify, but a workaround, known as the Ability to Benefit provision, allows adults without a high school diploma to get federal financial aid in college.

California’s community colleges rarely use it. The regulations surrounding the provision are “cumbersome” and few students know about it, said Kevin Harral, the director of financial aid at Las Positas College in Livermore.

Seven other states found ways to simplify those regulations, but the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office didn’t make such a push, even after education advocates put forward a proposal five years ago.

In a statement this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom and Chancellor Sonya Christian said reforms may come soon. They said the state has submitted a proposalto simplify the ways that students qualify for this financial aid provision. The federal government has to approve the proposal.

“This initiative has the ability to change lives,” Christian said in the statement. “It will open college and career opportunities for adult learners seeking to pursue their academic aspirations, regardless of their background or circumstances.” An estimated 4 million adults in California lack a high school diploma — all of whom could benefit, according to the statement.

Hurdles to accessing financial aid

Last fall, roughly 36,500 adults without high school diplomas attended one of California’s community colleges, according to data from the Chancellor’s Office. Rebecca Ruan-O’Shaughnessy, vice chancellor for educational services and support, said the office does not track how many of those students are receiving federal financial aid. She said she could provide an estimate but not before the time of publication. In response to inquiries last summer, CalMatters found that only a few colleges had implemented the program.

Las Positas College doesn’t have any students who currently receive financial aid through the Ability to Benefit provision, said Harral, pointing to the various hurdles students must overcome.

Before they can qualify for federal financial aid, a student without a high school diploma must pass at least two college courses and simultaneously enroll in high school-level or GED classes. Alternatively, if they want to receive financial aid before passing a class, students can take a test to prove their academic merit. Once they qualify, students are limited to certain college classes, as determined by the school they attend.

Most of these regulations are set by the federal government, which has toughened rules to clamp down on financial aid fraud, especially at for-profit colleges. With permission, though, states can give schools the option to modify some of the rules.

In California’s proposal, community college students could, for instance, attend an orientation or schedule meetings with an academic counselor instead of taking two college-level classes or passing an exam. Even if California’s proposal is approved by the federal government, colleges determine which requirements they want to impose.

‘Time is of the essence’

By 2019, Iowa and Wisconsin had already created a simplified pathway that allowed students without high school diplomas to qualify for federal financial aid. That year, Linda Collins, the executive director of the Career Ladders Project, worked with other community colleges and another nonprofit, World Education/JSI, to send a draft proposal to the California Community Colleges Chancellor’s Office, asking it to do something similar.

Nothing happened, even as Washington, Illinois, Alabama, Minnesota, and Mississippi designed their own policies to expand access to the Ability to Benefit provision.

After a CalMatters report last year about the provision, Collins received calls from state officials, inquiring about the Ability to Benefit provision.

Around the same time, Gov. Newsom named Christian the new chancellor for the community college system. Both Newsom and Christian have since announced plans to expand access to college, especially for working adults and those seeking job training. This proposed financial aid reform is part of a “bigger picture,” they wrote in their statement, citing the governor’s Master Plan for Career Education, which will be released this fall.

The new proposal is “pretty similar” to the 2019 version, Collins said. “We’re really pleased with this breakthrough,” she said. “When the (new) chancellor heard about it, my sense is that she really embraced it.”

It may be too late. The federal government recently enacted new — and in some ways more cumbersome — regulations for the Ability to Benefit provision, which go into effect on July 1. “Time is of the essence,” Collins said.

If the federal government approves California’s proposal before July 1, she said the reforms could happen as early as this year. After July 1, the future of the proposal is less clear.

Adam Echelman covers California’s community colleges in partnership with Open Campus, a nonprofit newsroom focused on higher education.

Financial support for this story was provided by the Smidt and Irvine Foundations.

CalMatters is a nonprofit, nonpartisan media venture explaining California policies and politics.