Introduction of PROSPER Act: What's in it for Adult Learners?

The Promoting Real Opportunity, Success, and Prosperity through Education Reform Act, or the ‘‘PROSPER Act’’ is a Bill introduced in the House of Representatives on December 1, 2017, with the goal of "support[ing] students in completing an affordable postsecondary education that will prepare them to enter the workforce with the skills they need for lifelong success".
Key elements of the PROSPER Act include:
  • Gainful employment (Title I, Section 104) – The PROSPER Act eliminates the Gainful Employment (GE) rule—a regulation put in place by the previous Administration aimed at weeding out bad actors in the for-profit education space. To hold career education programs accountable, the rule ties federal student aid funds to student outcomes using a debt-to-earnings metric.


  • Information Sharing through a College Dashboard Website (Title I, Section 121) – The Act contains language that directs the develop of a college dashboard website, to include information about various higher education institutions:
    • Number of students enrolled;
    • Student to faculty ratio;
    • Percentage of degree-seeking or certificate-seeking undergraduate students enrolled at the institution who obtain a degree or certificate within the appropriate time window, as well as the percentage of those who do not;
    • The median earning of students who obtained a certificate or degree, both in the 5th and 10th years following their graduation; and
    • Federal student debt incurred by students at the institution.


  • Expanding Access to In-Demand Apprenticeships (Title II, Sections 201 and 202) – This provision authorizes the Department to issue grants on a competitive basis for a minimum of 1 year, and a maximum of 4 years, to partnerships between businesses and educational institutions that provide work-based learning opportunities for students. These grants, authorized at a funding level of $183,204,000, will require a 50% match from the grantee. Students must be able to complete these work-based learning programs in two years or less, and they must result in a recognized post-secondary credential upon completion.


  • Federal Pell Grants (Title IV, Section 401) – The bill creates one grant, one loan, and one Work-Study program. The bill would largely consolidate existing loan programs into a single federal ONE loan program, eliminating the current Federal Direct Loan Program, the Perkins Loan program.  In addition, the PROSPER Act makes changes to the eligibility provisions attached to Pell funding. Under current law, only students enrolled in a program requiring 600+ clock hours and 15 weeks of instruction are eligible for Pell funds. The PROSPER Act addresses this issue in Title IV, Section 481, by defining a Pell-eligible program as one that is at least 300 clock hours over 10 weeks of instruction. This title also expands Pell eligibility to competency-based programs, or those that measure student achievement through the demonstration of their skills rather than the amount of time they spend in a classroom.


  • Ability to Benefit Students (Title IV, Section 485) –  The PROSPER Act modifies the requirements for the “ability-to-benefit” (AtB) provision, which allows students who did not receive a high school diploma, or equivalent, to be eligible for Title IV financial aid. Under current law, AtB students must be enrolled in an eligible “career pathway” program, and may demonstrate their AtB from post-secondary education through completion of six (6) credit hours or equivalent coursework, passing an independent examination, or other processes identified by a state.


  • Federal Work-Study (Title IV, Part C) – The PROSPER Act increases the authorized Federal Work Study (FWS) funding level from $1.1 billion to $1.7 billion for FY 2019-2024. The Act also eliminates the requirement that institutions spend 7% of their FWS on supporting students who are participating in community service projects and replaces it with an increased focus on work-based learning opportunities.  Under the PROSPER Act, the current FWS funding formula would direct more money to schools that enroll a high number of Pell-eligible students. The Act would also provide more flexibility to institutions by lifting the existing 25% cap on private sector employment.

What questions do you have about how the PROSPER Act, if passed,  would serve the needs of our adult learners?



Mike Cruse

Career Pathways Moderator




Hi, Stephanie -

Thanks for your question.  I think it's an important one to be asking ourselves.  While I'm not a policy expert, when I look at the language in the proposed bill, under Section 485, Student Eligibility, it reads as follows:

In order for a student who does not have a certificate of graduation from a school providing secondary education, or the recognized equivalent of such certificate, to be eligible for any assistance under sub-part 1 of part A and parts C, D, and E of this title, the student shall be determined by the institution of higher education as having the ability to benefit from the education offered by the institution of higher education upon satisfactory completion of 6 credit hours or the equivalent coursework that are applicable toward a degree or certificate offered by the institution of higher education.

There are several questions that I can see, based on this language.  The first is what measure(s) higher education will use to determine students' AtB, and will it be consistent across all programs, and institutions?  Next, I don't know what is considered 'satisfactory completion'.  If this is based on grades, does it mean a letter grade or 'C', or better?  What definition will be used here, and will it be consistent?  Finally, I wonder how the '6 hours or equivalent coursework' will impact adult learners transitioning into higher education?  Does this seem like enough time to measure whether a learner has the ability to benefit from being enrolled in a competitive degree, or certificate program? 

What are your thoughts? 


Mike Cruse

Career Pathways Moderator

The language does seem to be ambiguous, which may or may not help our students, depending on specific interpretations of that language.

Is the requirement that the program the student is enrolled in be part of a career pathway still in place under this proposed legislation?  My experience in speaking to institutions of higher education in my state is that they have been wary of designating programs as a career pathway program and so we have struggled to get any institution to offer the Ability to Benefit to our students.

I agree with you, Stephanie, a lot depends on interpretations of the language.  As far as your question about career pathways as a requirement under the Prosper Act, I think a lot also depends on how we're defining what we mean when we say 'career pathways'.   The Career Pathways Toolkit, developed by the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL), uses six key elements to define career pathways.  The six elements are:

  1. Build cross-agency partnerships and clarify roles
  2. Identify industry sectors and engage employers
  3. Design education and training programs
  4. Identify funding needs and sources
  5. Align policies and programs
  6. Measure system change and performance

Thanks to policy analysis from CLASP, here are a few items that may help gain a better picture of how the PROSPER Act will impact career education.  The Act eliminates the Gainful Employment (GE) rule, which was to hold career education programs accountable by tying federal aid to student outcomes using debt-to-earnings ratios.  In its place, the Act directs the Secretary to develop a college dashboard website, displaying detailed information about higher education institutions.  The Act repeals Title II of the Higher Education Act, which focuses on teacher preparation, and replaces it with a new apprenticeship grant program.  

Under current regulations, students enrolled in a program of study that requires a minimum of 600 hours and 15 weeks of instruction are eligible for Pell funding. However, this limitation doesn't support learners upskilling through short-term programs.  The Act will expand Pell eligibility to programs of 150 hours, over at least 8 weeks, as well as competency-based programs.

These changes would potentially impact career pathways, as they are defined by DOL. I'm curious if these changes may help address some of higher education's wariness around designating programs as career pathways.  Have others had similar experiences to Stephanie's with higher education programs in their states?  If so, what do you attribute to their wariness about career pathways?

Mike Cruse

Career Pathways Moderator