Adult Learners Say “DEAL Me In” to Dual Enrollment!

By Judy Mortrude and Lauren Walizer

Earlier this month, state and local education leaders and advocates gathered at the U.S. Department of Education (ED) to discuss strategies for “dual enrollment for adult learners”—an approach we refer to as “DEAL”. These programs, designed using the career pathway model, can provide adults who don’t have a high school diploma or its equivalent with access to federal financial aid to support tuition or living costs by using the Higher Education Act’s Ability to Benefit (ATB) provision. Career pathway models, plus the resources ATB can provide, allow adults to more realistically visualize an academic goal beyond a high school equivalency and work toward college and credential completion.

ED Assistant Secretary Scott Stump and Deputy Assistant Secretary Casey Sacks hosted the event and offered support  to state and local leaders in the expansion of DEAL programs that use ATB. Presenters at the convening discussed implementation successes and challenges and also problem-solved with participants about barriers to this work. Among the presenters were representatives from Texas, Mississippi, and Wisconsin, who are making DEAL a big deal.

Anson Green shared the Texas Workforce Commission’s Workforce Investment Opportunity Act (WIOA) title II investment strategy, which has been so successful that the state has already exceeded its 2020 goal of 20,000 students in career pathways. Texas is now serving over 23,000 students—about two years ahead of its 2020 goal. ATB will allow Texas to keep this growth curve by helping adults access the Pell grants they need.

Gloria Cross Mwase of the Mississippi Community College Board shared the demonstrated success of the Mississippi Integrated Basic Education and Skills Training (MiBEST) programming in 180 career pathways across the state. In 2019, Mississippi will operationalize ATB across its 15 community colleges and continue its dramatic progress of enrolling adults into postsecondary education.

Terese Craig described the Wisconsin Technical College System’s strategy for the inclusive development of the first-ever ATB state-defined plan submitted to ED. (This would allow students to receive federal financial aid by meeting the plan’s criteria rather than first completing six credits or an exam like the Accuplacer.) In Wisconsin, the growing workforce shortage is a powerful motivator, but so is equity. Terese mentioned that, even with a statewide unemployment rate of 4 percent, Wisconsin has pockets of double-digit unemployment rates–largely among people of color, justice-involved populations, and single parents. ATB is part of Wisconsin’s strategy to advance equity and provide everyone with opportunities for prosperity. The state has made a special effort to engage incarcerated individuals and prepare them for re-entry, which is particularly important since the National Re-entry Resource Center reports that “at least 95 percent of all people in state prisons will be released back to their communities at some point.”

With growing momentum at the federal level and in states to build ATB capacity, more states realize that adult learners need dual enrollment opportunities to meet state postsecondary credentialing goals and seriously address the equity gaps in education and economic mobility. ATB motivates and accelerates learning through combined high school credential and postsecondary credential programs. Community College?  DEAL me in!