Aaliyah Mays was partway through her first semester at Portland Community College this fall when school officials told her she was not eligible for federal aid because she didn’t have a valid high school diploma. 

The 45-year-old says she was shocked to learn that the Hawaii Adult Community School Diploma she’d earned five years earlier on Oahu was not a high school diploma equivalent and did not meet federal standards. 

“It completely derailed all of my plans,” she said. 

Mays is part of a large cohort of students, possibly thousands, who earned Hawaii Adult Community School Diplomas through a competency-based diploma program known as C-Base between 2014 and 2019 — a period when the diplomas no longer met federal standards but state-run schools were still issuing them. 

A fall 2016 commencement ceremony for 478 graduates of the Waipahu Community School for Adults from its Waipahu, Wahiawa and Windward campuses. Screenshot/DOE Facebook

It is unclear what efforts the state Department of Education made to communicate this fact to students and schools. What is clear is that years of widespread confusion ensued. 

Although at least one school was aware of the issue and sent letters to students, the DOE’s own website continued to tout the diploma as being equivalent to a high school diploma until at least 2017.

Even Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy, which used C-Base from 2010 to 2019, was unaware of the diplomas’ deficiencies at the time. 

Department spokeswoman Nanea Kalani declined to comment, citing legal concerns. The employee named as the point of contact on a 2018 DOE memo explaining that C-Base was not a high school equivalent did not respond to multiple phone calls and emails. 

No students who earned C-Base diplomas from 2014-19 are eligible for federal financial aid. The diplomas also pose problems with admission to four year colleges. C-Base diplomas, for example, do not meet standards for admission at the University of Hawaii West Oahu.

‘We Didn’t Know’

The Hawaii Department of Education created the “Competency-Based Community School Diploma Program,” in the 1970s for adults who had dropped out of high school, most of whom had already partly or fully entered the workforce. 

Mays was one such student. A single teen mother, she left high school at 17 to work. Two decades later she started the C-Base program at Waipahu Community School for Adults, graduating in 2017 with what she believed was functionally a high school diploma. 

“Getting what I thought was a high school diploma was the beginning of a new start for me,” she said. 

Aaliyah Mays completed 26 credits at Honolulu Community College between 2018 and 2020. Courtesy: Aaliyah Mays/2020

The C-Base program, which the DOE shut down in 2019, centered on building life skills such as financial literacy and understanding civics and local government, in addition to basic academic coursework. The program helped a lot of disenfranchised youth get back on track in a way that not many current programs do, said Catherine Payne, a veteran educator and former chair of the Board of Education. 

Historically, the diploma earned by students in C-Base was equivalent to a high school diploma. But in 2014 the federal Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act set new standards that the DOE ultimately decided C-Base did not meet. The DOE has declined to provide information about when the decision that it didn’t meet standards was made.

In 2014 there were at least 10 DOE-run community school campuses, overseen by the Waipahu Community School for Adults and McKinley Community School for Adults, where students could get their Hawaii Adult Community School Diploma by completing the C-Base program or earning a GED diploma. 

McKinley Community School for Adults Principal Helen Sanpei said that in August 2013 she received news that at the end of the year the C-Base program would no longer be considered a high school equivalent. She and her staff encouraged students to finish the program by the end of the year so that their diplomas would count as high school diplomas. 

Sanpei said her administration notified students as quickly as possible, and sent letters to the homes of students who had taken a break from classes, as is common with adult schools, notifying them so that they could come back to complete their coursework. 

“It’s really unfair to the student if we don’t notify them right away because of all the time spent,” she said. 

Lisa Tamashiro, who taught at the Waipahu school at the time through a partnership with the nonprofit Adult Friends for Youth, said she also received the news that year and students who did not make the 2014 cutoff date were understandably upset. 

Though she did not think the school went out of its way to give C-base students the impression that their diplomas would be valid substitutes for a high school diploma, she was unsure of how clear the differentiation was made to students who enrolled after the switch. 

As of 2017, the DOE website’s Community School Diploma FAQ page blatantly gave students incorrect information, including stating that the C-Base diploma was a recognized equivalent to the high school diploma. 

The response to a question zeroing in on the distinction between a Community School Diploma and a traditional high school diploma was painfully vague: “The rigor and expectations remain the same.”

The Waipahu Community School for Adults sent letters to students in 2013, but Mays said when she enrolled several years later she was never told the diploma would not qualify her for college aid. David Croxford/Civil Beat/2022

Even the authors of Hawaii’s 2015 Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act Annual Report, which evaluates the state’s workforce training, were confused about the validity of C-Base in the years following the act. WIOA law determined the fate of C-Base in 2014, but a success story described in the 2015 report said a student named Sean was working diligently to complete his last C-Base class so that he could graduate with his high school diploma. 

“Anticipating graduation, Sean applied for Hawaii Community College, filed for financial aid and is looking toward a major in Computer Technology,” it said.

The DOE declined to justify the program’s existence during that time and did not say whether it was clear to administration and students that the diplomas awarded would not be on par with high school diplomas.

Mays insists that in the 161.5 class hours she put in at Waipahu Community School for Adults, she was never told that the diploma she was working toward would not equate with a high school diploma. She says it was quite the opposite — that her teachers at Waipahu encouraged her to continue her education all the way up to graduate school. 

“They really pushed that this was an attainable thing for us financially because the FAFSA was going to help us pay for it,” she recalled, referring to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

Mays was not the only one caught off guard when that didn’t happen. 

The Hawaii National Guard Youth Challenge Academy, which promoted itself as a pathway to postsecondary education, continued to use C-Base as its academic component until the DOE dispensed with the program in 2019 for not meeting federal and state standards. 

Deputy Director Kuʻulei Kekuewa estimated that 40% to 45% of the academy’s graduates enroll in college most years. 

Soon after the C-Base program closed in 2019, calls started rolling in from previous students who were poised to start college and had just learned their diplomas were not up to federal standards and did not qualify them for financial aid, Kekuewa said.

“They didn’t know, we didn’t know,” she said. 

Students were given the option to complete the High School Equivalency Diploma test, or HiSET, through Waipahu Community School for Adults or to earn a GED diploma for free with a voucher. The academy now exclusively uses the HiSET program, which qualifies students for federal aid. 

Aside from the GED and HiSET, which are high school diploma equivalents, the Hawaii DOE now offers the Workforce Development Diploma, which is specifically geared toward preparing students to enter the workforce, not college. 

A Failure To Find Alternatives 

Mays completed 26 credits at Honolulu Community College between 2018 and 2020. She was a student government member and was on the dean’s list before she moved to Portland, where she had every intention of continuing her academic career.

Mays received federal financial aid at Honolulu Community College, a conundrum that a financial aid employee familiar with the C-Base situation said was likely a simple oversight. 

In 2018, lawmakers passed a resolution calling on the DOE to explore financial aid options for C-Base graduates. The resolution highlighted the problematic fact that many C-Base students relied on federal aid to attend college, and the University of Hawaii system, including Honolulu Community College, was no longer able to award it to them. 

Aaliyah Mays at a domestic abuse protest in Honolulu in 2018. Mays says she does not expect to be able to continue classes at Portland Community College next semester. Courtesy: Aaliyah Mays/2018

Sen. Donovan Dela Cruz said he introduced the resolution after he met with students at a night school in Honolulu. A number of them raised concerns about their C-Base diplomas and issues with financial aid. 

“They felt discouraged,” he said. 

Dela Cruz said he was unaware of any work done by the DOE in the last four years to develop alternative pathways to federal aid.

“I hope they are working on it because the people who fall in this category tend to be the ones who need the help the most,” he said. 

Dela Cruz said that the department should have made an effort to see what it would take to give C-Base students access to federal aid.

“But they haven’t even gone through that process yet — and that’s misleading — because if not, why did you have the program?” he said. 

Payne, who is on the board of Adult Friends for Youth, said C-Base graduates’ inability to receive financial aid further marginalized many who overcame substantial difficulty to get to the point of entering post-secondary education. 

“I really feel bad for the people who are finding this out now. To me, that’s most unfortunate,” she said.

May says she paid around $2,000 out of pocket for tuition in Portland, expecting to be reimbursed once her financial aid application went through. She doubts she will be able to continue taking courses next semester. 

Mays says she was a victim of domestic abuse and suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. Her plan to complete her associates degree in psychology was a step toward her goal of helping other women recover from trauma and rebuild their lives. 

“I am going to be 46 in March, and to have to start this all over again,” she said. “It’s just crushing.”

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