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Career Pathway Programs: Opportunity or Land Mine?

The passage of The Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act of 2015 (Pub. L. 113-235) reinstituted the opportunity for a student’s Title IV eligibility through ability to benefit (ATB) alternatives.  But, this ATB alternative opportunity is only available if such a student is enrolled in an “eligible career pathway program.”  The U.S. Department of Education (ED) has provided some guidance in regard to eligible career pathway programs in Dear Colleague Letter GEN-15-09, but it has been quite limited in scope.  As such, numerous clients have inquired about what they consider to be an eligible career pathway programs (CPP).  We appreciate our clients’ interest in the perceived opportunity they anticipate to be available via the CPPs.  Yet, the legislation allowing for CPPs is not as broad as would be hoped.  And, there has been limited and, apparently, somewhat contradictory information from ED.  The result is that many concerns have surfaced.  As it turns out, CPPs may actually be more like stepping on a land mine.  Unless and until ED provides more definitive guidance that will indicate approval of a school’s proposed career pathway program up front, prior to disbursing Title IV aid, FAME takes the position that pursuit of a CPP would place schools and FAME in too much jeopardy to consider it a viable option.  Therefore, at this time, FAME is not pursuing any proposals that a school may be considering in regard to a career pathway program under the provisions of Pub. L. 113-235.

FAME desired to find ability-to-benefit (ATB) and career pathways industry experts.  One such source was the National Career Pathways Network (, a 2,000 member organization.  We thought this resource could help schools determine whether their programs met the criteria of a career pathway program.  The NCPN website indicates that it “is a membership organization for educators, employers and others involved in the advancement of Career Pathways, career technical education (CTE), and related education reform initiatives….  NCPN is housed at the Center for Occupational Research and Development (CORD).”[i]  The NCPN web site states that their director, Mrs. Debbie Mills, is a “subject matter expert for the U.S. Department of Education’s Designing Programs of Instruction for Career Pathways ‘Communities of Practice’ and serves on the National Advisory Group for the Alliance for Quality Career Pathways initiative.  Previously Mills was a subject-matter expert for the DOLETA/OVAE Career Pathways Technical Assistance Initiative (2011), OVAE Rigorous Programs of Study project (2011), and the College & Career Transition Leadership Team (OVAE Project 2007).”[ii]  However, even with such expertise, the NCPN and CORD are unwilling to make an official determination of schools’ programs for the purposes of Title IV eligibility as a career pathway program.  We encourage schools to explore NCPN’s website for a greater understanding of their career pathways expertise, including career pathways program evaluation.

Similarly, FAME contacted Wonderlic, Inc., the renowned education assessment firm.  But, Wonderlic had also been looking for organizations willing to make an official ruling on schools’ proposed career pathway programs meeting the requirements of Pub. L. 113-235.  Their search, too, has been fruitless in finding an organization willing to make such a judgment.

The bottom line is that to date, FAME and Wonderlic are unable to find an organization willing to make a determination of the eligibility of CPPs.  Our understanding is that the provision of the law that enables the possibility of CPPs was purposely written so narrowly in the legislation that it would benefit only a very small number of schools in certain congressional members’ districts.[iii]  It seems to have been done as a political move, and was not written more broadly due to the increased costs that would be generated in the federal budget.  As a result, it appears that ED is not willing to take steps to approve schools’ potential career pathway programs as apparently the legislation was never intended to be used on a wide-scale basis.

The current environment of CPP is a very dangerous place for schools to tread without more specific guidance from ED, and approval by ED up front, in writing, of proposed CPPs’ eligibility before aid is disbursed.  As we have referenced, the limited information provided by ED to date indicates to us that there are very few for-profit schools that will likely have a qualified CPP.  Until we hear definitive guidance from ED in writing regarding the CPP legislation that provides a method of assuring a program’s eligibility prior to disbursing aid, we must protect clients from a potential federal Title IV land mine.  However, if a school is able to get ED to make a determination that its proposed CPP is an eligible one, and provide that specific determination in writing, then we will be happy to process aid for such a program.

Thank you for your assistance as we work together at staying in compliance with applicable Title IV legislation, regulations, and policies, while assisting students in their educational pursuits.


[i] The “About Us” Welcome Page of the National Career Pathways Network (NPCN) at; accessed on 08/28/2015.

[ii] The “About Us” NCPN Staff Page of the National Career Pathways Network (NPCN) at; accessed on 08/28/2015.

[iii] AACS’ “Eligible Career Pathways Programs” Webinar presented on January 29, 2015, by AACS Public Policy Advisor, Tom Netting, and Katherine Brodie, Attorney – Ritzert & Leyton.

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