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.