By Kevin Kuzma, Online Editor
We were standing at an interior window, looking in on them like they were newborn babies.
“These are Ability to Benefit students,” the campus president said.
He had led us through the first two floors of the building and we’d just begun touring the third. The campus has a hospital feel – polished floors, long rectangular windows with tiny square patterns in them, gurneys pushed up against the walls, an x-ray machine, and skeletons hanging at the front of several classrooms.
Their test began about four o’clock. The students were seated around three long tables arranged in a U-shape. At the front of the classroom, the test moderator sat at a small table watching them.
“I was telling you about them earlier,” he continued. He took a long pause looking in on them, then turned to us. “These are the students we’re taking money away from?”
He knew the answer to that question, and so did we. The six students were all women, and all minorities. Five were African-American and one was Hispanic. They didn’t so much as glance at us while we stared at them. They were deep in thought, pencils at angles, in the deepest concentration imaginable.
We stood there speechless for a moment. A few of us shook our heads and looked some more.
“Over here is our Student Services department,” he said.
He was already leaning toward an open doorway across from us. We followed him in and were introduced to the employees and shook hands.
“Without us, I’m not sure what these students would do,” one woman said. “They wouldn’t have any place to go.” Her voice was surprisingly upbeat. She obviously dealt with students in harrowing situations every day. And she’d already prepared herself for what was to come.
This summer, students who would ordinarily have the opportunity to prove their “ability to benefit” are going to be shut out of the higher education ranks due to some coming Federal budget changes. These “ATB” students want to go to college, but can’t because they’ve never obtained a high school diploma or GED. Their only “ins” to acquiring the necessary federal grants and loans are either to take a basic skills test to prove their “ability to benefit” from a college-level education or complete six college credits.
The push to cut spending on Pell Grants is what led to the change. On July 1, newly enrolled students will be required to either possess a high school diploma or GED to qualify for federal financial aid. Career college leaders in particular fear that the policy will prevent non-traditional students, minorities, and other others from getting the training they need for a new career.
Many of these students will likely give up pursuing an education or apply for riskier loans, which comes with its own set of consequences. In the room next to us, the women were taking a test whose result could define the rest of their lives, perhaps opening a path to a new way of life or see their future become very much like the present: a never-ending series of menial jobs, possibly living paycheck to paycheck, or worse.
Our group finished the tour, then took the elevator down to the lobby. The women were done with their test. I watched them walk out into the wet afternoon to catch a bus. I knew it would be almost impossible to tell, but I watched them to see if there were any cues about how they did on their test – whether they thought they had passed or failed. But I didn’t sense any relief or frustration. There was nothing – no more pressure on them than a typical day, it would seem. Then I realized, these are women who have experienced a great deal of setbacks in their lives. Pass or fail, they’d take the results of the test in stride.
Soon, thousands of minorities and disadvantaged people like them won’t have the same opportunity. Watching them walk away, it all felt a little too easy – to let that money and the lives it can change slip away.