High Hopes, Crushed Dreams
When Aaron Dolph graduated from high school he had high hopes.
"I got this thing, it's a diploma, but it's called a modified diploma," said Dolph who is currently homeless.
Students with a modified diploma take the normal amount of credits, but their coursework can be altered depending on their abilities.
What it means for people with the diploma?
"You cannot go to college and get student funds and financial aid because it doesn't count," said Dolph.
The realization was a big blow to Dolph who wants to be a voice actor for cartoons.
"Now that I can't go to college, it feels like my dreams are crushed," Dolph said.
Kids with Modified Diplomas Discouraged
Kids in special education, or those who are learning English as a second language are typically the ones who get a modified diploma. However, others having a tough time in school can also get one.
"Honestly it's just discrimination," said Fallon Stewart, a caseworker at the Maslow Project.
"You're taking a population of kids who have had to work twice as hard to obtain a certificate of graduation and taking them and saying, not only is what you've just accomplished not as good, it doesn't even qualify you to earn job readiness," Stewart continued.
School officials we spoke with from the Phoenix-Talent School District and Medford School District said the inability to get federal financial aid because of the modified diploma, is discouraging graduates from pursuing a higher education.
According to Anna Manley, Director of Financial Aid at Rogue Community College, as of July of 2012, the federal government said the diploma didn't meet their student aid requirements and students were no longer able to take tests to become eligible for federal funding.
Options to Get Federal Financial Aid
To get financial aid, a person holding a modified diploma must have been grandfathered in prior to the July 1, 2012 cut-off date. The policy affects four-year universities, community colleges and technical colleges.
"There are many students I worked with that, maybe getting a degree in history isn't really going to serve them well, but getting a certificate in something practical like welding or nursing [...] could seriously benefit these students," Stewart said.
Now, to get funding for college, those holding a modified diploma have to go back and get a GED, which requires taking a five-part test and costs $155. If a test-taker fails a part of the GED, they can re-take it...but it costs more money.
The other option: pay out of pocket to go to college for the first two years. After that a student could transfer to a four-year college and get financial aid for their last two years. For Dolph, a young homeless man...it's near impossible.
"No one is going to be able to pay out of pocket because there's so much poverty and there's no money here," said Dolph.
"This is singling out a population, in my opinion, that already has significant barriers to education and really presenting them with one more," began Stewart who works with at-risk teens with modified diplomas.
"I really feel like this is a step in the wrong direction. It really is. It's a step backward and it's defeating and it's really sad, honestly," she continued.
School officials said their piece of advice: if at all possible, students should avoid the modified diploma and try their hardest to graduate with a regular diploma so as not to miss out on financial aid. It's a difficult road for students already struggling with disabilities.
Meanwhile, Dolph and others are between a rock and a hard place...unable to afford college.
"It's heartbreaking. It really is. I have a dream and I want to fulfill it but I can't."
However, there is a bright spot. House Bill 2898 in the Oregon legislature would allow students with a modified diploma to get state financial aid to help them with college. It has already passed in the House and Senate, but has yet to be signed into law.