Tuesday, June 28, 2011


ABE, ESL, and Financial Aid

Why doesn’t financial aid cover adult basic education?

My college’s community has a significant population of adults whose first language isn’t English. Many of them face severely limited employment options as a result. The community also has significant numbers of people with limited literacy and basic math skills.

The college offers a series of responses to these needs. It offers developmental courses in math and English, and credit-bearing courses in English as a Second Language (ESL). It also offers non-credit ESL courses -- starting at a lower level -- and it contracts with some local literacy agencies to run Adult Basic Education courses (ABE) in reading and very basic math. The ABE courses are “below” the developmental level, so they’re run outside of the semester/credit system.

Developmental and credit-bearing ESL courses are eligible for financial aid, as long as the students declare that they’re degree-seeking. (The term of art is “matriculated.”) ABE courses, including the ESL versions, are not eligible for financial aid. Outside of a few small grants, ABE programs have to be self-supporting or close to it. That means that the supply consistently trails the demand. The courses run small -- the students need them that way -- and the waitlists are enormous.

Some students appear to have figured out that the way to get around the waitlists is to declare themselves degree-seeking and to enroll in the lowest level of credit-bearing ESL. Financial aid covers it, and they get top-notch instruction. They get through part of the sequence but leave before finishing, often with perfectly decent grades, having gotten what they actually wanted.

And here’s where it gets sticky.

Since the students declared themselves degree-seeking for financial aid purposes, when they leave, they count as attrition. When I’ve asked the ESL department about their attrition numbers, they’ve responded that many of the students never really meant to get a degree in the first place.

Um, okay, but there’s this pesky issue of financial aid fraud, not to mention legislators looking askance at what appear to be distressingly high attrition rates...

If the ABE programs were eligible for financial aid, we wouldn’t have this problem. Students who just wanted to learn enough English to talk to their children’s teachers and get along at work could take the ABE courses honestly, and the credit-bearing ESL courses would be reserved for students who are actually trying to get degrees.

But for reasons I can’t explain, we’ve decided as a country that helping immigrants learn English is a lower priority than, say, incarcerating them. And we put the smarter ones in a position where lying about their intentions is the best way to get help. To put the cherry on the sundae, we then punish community colleges for the resultant high ‘attrition’ rates.

This is madness.

My modest proposal: let’s fund ABE programs at some reasonable level, so people who just need to pick up some quick English can do so honestly and then go about the business of integrating into the larger society. Yes, there’s an upfront cost, but compared to incarceration, rehab, and all the costs of persistent poverty, it seems like a pretty good deal. And let’s stop saying, with dollars, that the only way to get help with your education is to pretend that you’re in it for the long haul. As long as we have a substantial immigrant population -- and we do -- it’s worth getting this right.

This is a thought provoking post. I want to address one part of it. Legislators need to be aware of the real world.

Why is attrition rate used at all? Some students don't graduate. They transfer their credits to 4 yr college. Some students start and don't finish their degrees until years later. Some students start and never come back to the cc, but go to another college and get a degree. There are many variations.

I agree that basic English would cost less to teach than incarceration would. In my part of the country, a teacher could be paid $450 a month for 16 hours a month of teaching basic English evenings. That costs a lot less per year than incarceration.

Maybe legislators/officials need to look again more closely at the use of financial aid and see realistically how recipients use it.
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A post like this one makes me think that, in some ways, community colleges have become the educator of last resort, if you will.

Other countries such as Israel actually have schools for people who are emigrating to the country. In those schools they get, among other things, immersion classes in the native language. The schools' entire purpose is to integrate new immigrants into the country, so there is no incentive for fraud.

And native-born people whose literacy, communication skills are deficient (I've taught many such students in my time!) point to failures or abdications of responsibility by pre-college schools and educational systems. Community colleges are then expected to do, in fifteen weeks, what primary, intermediate and secondary schools didn't or couldn't do over twelve years of a student's life. It breaks my heart--and makes me angry--when I have to tell a student that yes, I appreciate his effort and life situation but, no, he's not ready to move on to other courses.

Some of those native-born students, like the immigrants in question, want nothing more than read, write and speak English well enough to get along and get a job. But they have to lie in order to get what they need. If some impressionable recent high-school graduate hasn't already learned that lesson, what does it say to them when they are confronted with this reality in an institution of higher education?
Surprisingly, even the "buy a diploma" spammer inadvertently makes a relevant point. Unlike non-students who only seek to purchase a piece of paper without actually learning something, these students are highly motivated to learn a specific skill that benefits all of us.

What DD describes is not a national problem. In my state, as well as others I am familiar with, ABE and ESL are free. In this state, that applies whether ABE and GED classes are taught at a CC or in a school district facility. I presume they are funded on a per-student basis within the public school system, probably based on the premise that adults who cannot read never got their money's worth from the public schools when they were growing up.

I assume the lack of federal financial aid reflects the fact that some states fund ABE classes themselves using local, state, and federal K-12 funds.
Obviously you need more funding for ESL, though I'm slightly comforted it's not a universal problem.

Aside from that though, I think the better solution is probably to collect more attrition data, not to simply refrain from counting these folks. Figure out why different groups leave and how they feel about it. In both ABE and regular credit classes.
Legislators should be understanding that before they look askance at anything, anyway.
I presume they are funded on a per-student basis within the public school system, probably based on the premise that adults who cannot read never got their money's worth from the public schools when they were growing up.

CCP - you are both right and wrong about this. In the past, money for adult ed was given to the K-12 system but earmarked in such a way that it could not be used for other things. There was, in some areas, a whole separate credentialing process for these adult educators. Changes in CA law either this year or last have released the constraints on this money and other adult training programs so that it can be folded back into district budgets. And guess what they're doing? Many districts are taking laid off teachers from within the district and paying them a fraction of their former wage to teach english, math and other basic courses to adult ed students. Capacity is also being cut (in my area). The new result is that less of this kind of education is being provided at a time when people need it the most.
Ivory, I have no doubt that I am both right and wrong, since it was immediately clear that ABE is handled completely differently in DD's state than in mine. Your comments and that on the IHE version indicate CA is somewhere in between.

No surprise, either. K-12 is still mostly (NCLB excluded) left to the states, so I would expect ABE to be left up to the states. There isn't federal financial aid for private high schools, either.

Since ABE is K-8 education, I'm actually surprised that anyone collects college fees for it. It gets fuzzy when you get into GED versus college developmental classes, but I suspect the boundary is loosely defined by the minimal standards of a GED. I say "loosely" because our lowest level probably overlaps with what a student knew on the GED but has quickly forgotten or could miss and still pass the GED.

We are consistent with our college ESL classes, which match up one-to-one with our college developmental English classes.

I don't know if we use a placement exam to force the lowest students to take ABE and K-8 ESL classes before they enroll in college developmental classes. If we don't, we should.
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