The Case for Ability to Benefit

November 1st, 2023 | Blogs

By Shirley Doan and Judy Mortrude

This blog post is the first in the The Ability to Benefit Provision: Expanding Access to College for Adult Learners series. World Education’s National College Transition Network (NCTN) provides technical assistance to state systems to scale and sustain Ability to Benefit (AtB) implementation. Visit the NCTN website for further guidance and resources on ATB.

While the post-high school educational attainment of adults nationwide has increased steadily over the past fifteen years,1 the door to postsecondary education remains shut for many adults who are still working to complete their secondary credential. Ability to Benefit (ATB) is a provision in the Higher Education Act (HEA) that gives adults without a high school diploma or its equivalent equal access to federal student aid. ATB is a critical strategy for ensuring equitable access to postsecondary education for adults who are working to complete their high school credential and earn a postsecondary credential at the same time. To be eligible for ATB, an adult must enroll in an eligible career pathway program and complete one of three options:

  1. Pass a U.S. Department of Education-approved test;
  2. Complete six credit hours towards a postsecondary credential; or
  3. Be admitted through a “state defined process.”

ATB implementation at community colleges is an especially promising strategy. Community colleges serve more than 12 million students per year; more than half of those students are students of color and nearly one-third are first-generation college students. Most community colleges also have a longstanding history of serving adult learners alongside traditional college-age students.2 Usage of ATB also ties into four key areas of interest to community colleges and adult education: Integrated Education and Training, guided pathways, dual enrollment, and racial equity.

Integrated Education and Training (IET)

Dual enrollment programs for adult education and postsecondary education are a critical component of evidence-based Integrated Education and Training (IET) career pathway strategies.3

IET programs have been slowly scaling since the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA) cemented IET into adult education federal law in 2016. In 2018, over 50,000 adult education participants were served by IET programs.4 In 2020, while the adult education system overall saw a 35 percent drop in enrollment due to COVID-19, IET program enrollment only dropped by 20 percent, demonstrating programs’ resilience and learners’ continued interest in IET programming. As adult education enrollment rebounds post-pandemic, the Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education (OCTAE) in the U.S. Department of Education also continues to build technical assistance projects to further support the scaling of IET programs; e.g., designing and holding IET Design Camps for state teams and developing IET resources for correctional contexts.

Every IET program requires concurrent and contextualized adult education services, workforce preparation services, and workforce training within a career pathway, yet the programs themselves can take many forms. The gold standard of IET has been the Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (I-BEST) model,5 developed in Washington State and replicated across the country during the Accelerating Opportunity initiative.6 I-BEST utilizes credit-based community college programming for the workforce training component, essentially creating an adult dual enrollment strategy in which the adult learner is simultaneously building foundational skills – reading, writing, math, and English language acquisition – and acquiring postsecondary career and technical education. That is, foundational skills building and postsecondary and career and technical education are integrated to accelerate learning through strategies such as team teaching and contextualized instruction.

Guided Pathways

Adult education focuses on expanding IET programming to increase access to postsecondary education for adult learners; however, recent reforms in the community college ecosystem have shifted the focus from student access to student completion.

Nationally, just 43 percent of community college students complete any credential within six years of enrollment.7 In response to this disheartening fact, in 2015, the Community College Research Center called for a fundamental restructuring of community colleges under guided pathways reform. Guided pathways is a comprehensive college transformation approach created to assist every student in efficiently and affordably exploring, choosing, planning, and completing programs that match their career and educational objectives. Nearly 400 colleges across the country are adopting guided pathways reforms to enhance student graduation rates, address equity disparities, and boost enrollments in a progressively competitive setting.8 The guided pathways model requires community colleges to redesign the student experience through four pillars of practice:

  1. Mapping pathways to students’ end goals by implementing transparent and directed course-taking in all programs;
  2. Helping students choose and enter pathways more quickly, including the use of contextualized learning support for all students;
  3. Helping students stay on their pathways through academic and non-academic supports and flexible course delivery; and
  4. Ensuring students are learning by shifting from a traditional “knowledge transmission” teaching model to a co-created, facilitated method of learning that builds metacognitive skills.

With growing interest and investment in this work, many states and institutions are actively engaged in guided pathways, the implementation of which is a multi-year, complex process.9 Ultimately, guided pathways reforms make community colleges stronger partners for adult education by putting in place the systems and supports needed to facilitate success for all students.

Dual Enrollment

The benefits of dual enrollment are many and for many. Research from the U.S. Department of Education has shown the positive effects of dual enrollment for high school students: higher high school graduation rates, higher college enrollment rates, higher postsecondary credit accumulation, and higher college degree attainment rates.10 Dual enrollment is a critical equity strategy: research shows that the effects of dual enrollment are even more beneficial for first-generation college students, and students of lower socioeconomic status who may not otherwise pursue higher education.11

While high school dual enrollment programs rely on state and local funding to pay for students, learners enrolled in adult dual enrollment initiatives can utilize the ATB funding mechanism to access federal student aid for themselves. Access to federal student aid such as Pell Grants can not only cover tuition costs for adult learners, but also offset the opportunity costs of being an adult college student by supporting living costs. For example, the maximum Pell Grant for 2023-2024 (July 1, 2023, through June 30, 2024) is $7,395.12 Access to these funds can make all the difference in adult learner postsecondary success.

Racial Equity

Even though postsecondary credential attainment among adults is increasing across the board, including among Hispanic and Latino and Black adults, significant disparities remain. The national college degree attainment rate, for example, is 45.7 percent, yet only 34.2 percent of Black adults, 27.8 percent of Hispanic and Latino adults, and 25.4 percent of Native American adults hold a degree.13

Through the Advancing ATB for Equitable Access to Opportunity project, NCTN supported three states participating in the Racial Equity for Adult Credentials in Higher Education (REACH) Collaborative in creating and implementing an intentional ATB strategy. The REACH Collaborative, which is led by the Education Strategy Group (ESG) in partnership with the Office of Community College Research and Leadership (OCCRL) at the University of Illinois and DVP-PRAXIS, is focused on transforming credential pathways to associate degrees at community colleges to improve credential attainment and economic mobility for adult learners of color in six states: California, Colorado, New York, North Carolina, Texas, and Virginia. Intentional ATB strategies align with the REACH Collaborative’s goal of closing equity gaps by increasing systemic access to postsecondary education and better job opportunities for Black, Latino, and Native American adults.


With its ties to these four key areas of interest (IET programs, guided pathways, dual enrollment, and racial equity), ATB is a critical element for securing equitable access to postsecondary education for all adults who are working to complete their high school credential and earn a postsecondary credential at the same time. From May 2022 to February 2023, World Education provided technical assistance to California, North Carolina, and Texas to embed ATB into the specific contexts of their REACH Collaborative work. For the remainder of this five-part series, we will dive deeper into each state’s work and recommend opportunities for further investment in ATB across the country.

  1. “Stronger Nation: Ten Findings on U.S. Educational Attainment Trends,” Lumina Foundation, January 31, 2023,
  2. The Indispensable Institution: Reimagining Community College, Opportunity America, June 2020,
  3. Kelley Borradaile, Alina Martinez, and Peter Schochet, “Study Snapshot: Adult Education Strategies: Identifying and Building Evidence of Effectiveness,” U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation, April 2021,
  4. All descriptions of adult education data should be considered as occurring with that program year unless noted otherwise. For example, 2018 refers to data from the program year 2018, or July 1, 2018 to June 30, 2019.
  5. “Advancing Innovation in Adult Education: Explore the Innovative Practices,” LINCS, U.S. Department of Education, Office of Career, Technical, and Adult Education, April 17, 2023,
  6. Lauren Eyster et al. Findings from the Accelerating Opportunity Evaluation Building the Evidence on Integrated Career Pathways, Urban Institute, January 2018,
  7. “Community College FAQs,” Community College Research Center, Columbia University, accessed July 19, 2023,
  8. “Guided Pathways,” Community College Research Center, Columbia University, accessed October 23, 2023,
  9. Davis Jenkins et al. “What We Are Learning About Guided Pathways: Part 3: Timeline and Tips for Implementing Pathways Reforms,” Community College Research Center, April 2018,
  10. “Intervention Evidence Snapshot: Dual Enrollment Programs,” What Works Clearinghouse, U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, last modified February 2017,
  11. John Fink, Davis Jenkins, and Takeshi Yanagiura, What Happens to Students Who Take Community College “Dual Enrollment” Courses in High School?, Community College Research Center, September 2017,
  12. “Pell Grant Maximum for 2023–24 Announced,” Federal Student Aid, U.S. Department of Education, accessed July 19, 2023,
  13. “Stronger Nation: Ten Findings on U.S. Educational Attainment Trends.”

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