NAICU Washington Update

Department of Education Issues Guidance on Ability to Benefit Aid Eligibility

May 29, 2015

The Department of Education issued long-awaited guidance on changes made by the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015 (Pub.L. 113-235) to Title IV eligibility for certain students who are not high school graduates.

The bill, enacted last December, revised the restrictions on the “ability to benefit” (ATB) qualifications for Title IV eligibility, but only for students in career pathway programs. (Eligibility for ATB students had been eliminated a few years prior as a revenue-saving measure.) The guidance is complex, and defines how a student meets the ATB criterion. It also includes the definition of a career pathway program and a summary of how enrollment timing affects student aid, particularly Pell Grant eligibility, for these students.

ATB Eligibility

Under Pub. L. 113-235, students who are enrolled in an eligible career pathway program on or after July 1, 2014, may be eligible if they meet one of the following ATB alternatives (assuming they do not meet other Title IV eligibility criteria):

  1. Pass an independently administered Department of Education approved ATB test.
  2. Complete at least 6 credit hours, or 225 clock hours, applicable for a degree or certificate.
  3. Complete a state process approved by the Secretary. (None currently available.)

A Career Pathway Program

The statutory language for a career pathway program is outlined in the Higher Education Act, Sec. 484(d)(2), which defines a program as being a combination of rigorous and high-quality education, training, and support services that prepare students to meet needs in state or regional economies. Any public, nonprofit, or for-profit institution may be eligible to offer a career pathway program. The program must meet the following criteria:

  1. Concurrently enroll students in connected adult education and eligible postsecondary programs.
  2. Provide students with relevant counseling and supportive services.
  3. Provide structured course sequences that advance students.
  4. Provide opportunities for students to accelerate attainment of credentials.
  5. Be organized to meet the needs of adults.
  6. Be aligned with the education and skill needs of the regional economy.
  7. Be developed and implemented with partners in business, workforce development, and economic development.

In short, an eligible career pathway programs consists of an adult education component and a Title IV eligible postsecondary program component. The adult education component includes instruction below the postsecondary level, and therefore, costs for this part of the program cannot be included in the cost of attendance covered by Title IV funds.


Students who are enrolled in an eligible career pathway program as of July 1, 2014, and meet an ATB alternative listed above may be awarded a Pell Grant, a TEACH Grant, campus-based aid, and a direct loan. Students first enrolled in any Title IV eligible postsecondary program on or after July 1, 2015, however, are only eligible for a limited Pell Grant award based on funds from the discretionary appropriations for Pell Grants.

MORE News from NAICU