Ability to Benefit: Dual Enrollment

NCTN provides technical assistance to state systems to scale and sustain Ability to Benefit. The Wisconsin Technical College System ATB Toolkit is a prime example of our technical support of state champions engaging their colleagues to create actionable guidance. NCTN also works within local ATB efforts, bringing partners into dialogue on creating the policies and practices to support adult dual enrollment.

Dual enrollment for adults has been authorized since 1992 as the Ability to Benefit provision of student financial aid in the Higher Education Act. Unfortunately, ATB is poorly understood and massively underutilized, in no small part due to the fluctuation of legislative approval.

ATB has evolved over time and that has left some practitioners confused about what’s possible. Since 2016, the Higher Education Act includes three alternatives to make a person eligible for ATB and a requirement for institutions to enroll the person in a career pathway program, aligned to the WIOA and Perkins V definition of career pathway.


ATB provides access to federal financial aid, primarily Pell Grants, which allow an adult without a high school credential to simultaneously complete the high school credential while earning a postsecondary credential. Three options are available:

  1. pass a US Department of Education-approved test;
  2. pass 6 credit hours of college courses; or
  3. be enrolled in an ATB career pathway as documented by a US Department of Education-approved state plan.

Twenty-seven million US adults lack a high school diploma or equivalent. People of color are significantly overrepresented in this number at 20% — double the rate of whites. Providing accelerated access to dual enrollment in high school diploma/equivalent programs and postsecondary education is a racial imperative. It’s also an economic one. Adults without a high school diploma or equivalent earn on average $553/week — less than half the average of those with a bachelor’s degree and far too little to adequately support themselves or a family.

A Pell Grant of $6,345 (2020-2021 level) can make a world of difference for a low-income adult student. This is an equivalent amount to what they would earn working a $12/hour job 20 hours per week for one whole school year (two semesters). This aid essentially buys freedom for adult students to attend classes full-time, study more, participate in supplemental academic activities, and take care of themselves with adequate sleep and reduced stress–all of which improve their chances of retention and completion.

The economic impact of closing the door to postsecondary education on adults without a high school diploma or equivalent extends to employers and the economies in our communities. Most good jobs in today’s economy require some sort of postsecondary education, and this requirement will only increase into the future. Adult education dual enrollment efforts need to be widely implemented to support local economies and communities.

View the webinar recording, Ability to Benefit State Leadership (June 2020), to learn about three different strategies that state agencies are using to expand Ability to Benefit and make it easier for adults to simultaneously earn their high school and college credentials.

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💻 What hardware and software can best provide students with instruction whether they are attending class or working asynchronously? In the journal’s Technology Solutions column, David Rosen looks at the options: https://hubs.la/Q01k8Tk90