Allowing postsecondary students to use federal Pell grants for short-term certificate programs would be a win-win for colleges, students and employers, according to college advocates.
Current law limits Pell grants to programs of at least 16 credit hours or 600 clock hours. However, the House is considering as part of its reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA) to extend those grants to certificate programs of shorter duration. The Senate has yet to introduce its HEA bill, but lawmakers on its education committee seem to also support the idea.
In 2014-15, 24 percent of all credentials awarded by community colleges were certificates of less than one year, according to the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC).
AACC has recommended providing colleges with Pell funds equal to 2 percent of their previous year’s Pell grant expenditures for students in financially need who enroll in short-term programs that lead to good jobs. At current funding levels, that would add less than $600 million annually to the cost of the program.
Meeting employer’ needs
Expanding the grants to include short-term programs would not only boost enrollment, but it also would help address employers’ needs for skilled workers, said Gary Green, president of Forsyth Technical Community College in North Carolina.
Low-income students face the same barriers with short-term programs as they do with long-term, degree programs, Green said. “The lack of aid is a barrier,” he said.
Many potential students have families, and some are single parents working in low-wage jobs such as food services or basic construction, Green said. “They don’t have the higher-order skills but can’t afford to quit their jobs to start on a career path with sustainable wages.”
Forsyth Tech offers short-term credentials for electrical linemen, certified nursing assistants, IT, phlebotomy, medical coding and other areas. “All those are intensive programs that often preclude students from working while going to school,” Green said.
Students who complete the nine-week electrical lineman program, for example, can get jobs with starting salaries of $45,000 to $75,000.
At Chattanooga State Community College in Tennessee, Pell grants for short-term programs would be really help students in programs leading to certificates in truck driving and massage therapy, according to President Rebecca Ashford.
“We cannot put out enough truck drivers to meet the demand,” Ashford said. “The La-Z-Boy company is so desperate, they’re offering $80,000 a year for truck drivers who don’t even have to travel overnight.” The Tennessee-based company McKee Foods, which makes Little Debbie snack cakes, is also looking to hire more truck drivers.
The truck driving and massage programs both have 100-percent job placement, so expanding Pell grants for certificates “would certainly help recruit people to the college,” she said.
On the college-credit side, allowing Pell grants for a certificate in mammography would benefit people who’ve already earned an associate degree in radiology technology and want to expand their career options.
But Ashford stressed that Pell grants should only be used for high-quality programs. She would like to see some restrictions ensuring that the grants are not open to cover high-priced, non-accredited programs.
Financial aid for high-quality certificate programs that meet industry standards “will open the door to a lot of people and help fill the skills gap for employees,” said Mark Mitsui, president of Portland Community College (PCC) in Oregon. “That would help students in our career pathways earn a series of stackable, short-term certificates, giving them access to living-wage jobs and careers.”
Those programs have a 94 percent completion rate, Mitsui said, and 72 percent of students who complete a certificate continue their education. Incorporating wraparound supports into those programs is “a pretty potent formula for success,” he said.
Career pathways are designed to accommodate “the busy lives of our students,” most of whom are adults, Mitsui noted. More than half are low income or people or color.
The most promising career pathways at PCC are HVAC, healthcare and maritime welding, added Kate Kinder, director of career pathways and skills training. Those pathways include significant industry input and partnerships, collaboration with the public workforce system, student supports and connections to community partners, including nonprofits and the K-12 system.
“We have recruited very diverse cohorts – in terms of race, gender, age and ethnicity – the majority of whom are low-income or first-generation students,” Kinder said. “The outcomes have been promising, with strong completion, persistence, improved GPAs and employment at higher wages.”
In one example, PCC partners with Vigor Industrial, one of the largest shipbuilders in the Pacific Northwest, to train maritime welders in a real-world environment at its Swan Island facility. Students who complete the 25-week course earn certificates in wire welding and shielded metal arc welding. They can also earn six other industry-recognized credentials and credits that can apply toward an associate degree in welding.
Students who complete the program can find work quickly with manufacturing companies that pay between $17 and $26 an hour.
Closing the skills gap
The discussion about extending Pell to certificate programs “should start with what problem we’re trying to solve,” said Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System. “The real issue we face, in Louisiana and the nation as a whole, is the skills gap.”
There are 65 million adults age 25 to 64 in the United States with a high school diploma or less, and 1.2 million of them are in Louisiana, Sullivan noted.
“We have done a good job telling people about the value of higher education. What we have not done as well is telling people about the value of short-term credentials,” he said.
The most obvious need in Louisiana is for skilled construction workers, Sullivan said. “Over the past 18 months, there’s been a tremendous boom in construction, with companies having a hard time finding enough people able to prepare a site for concrete or build scaffolds, jobs that start at $20 an hour. There’s also a need in the state for people with certificates in cybersecurity and healthcare.
Expanding financial aid would allow more people to fully participate in the economy, Sullivan said. “The reality is that most people don’t have that first credential.” He added that once they get a foot in the door and get on a career pathway, it will be easier for them to earn a second credential and continue to advance in the workplace.
Tuition for a program resulting in a short-term certificate at a Louisiana community college is only about $500 to $570, he said, but that’s a hardship for someone earning $8 an hour. Accessing a Pell grant for that course gives an individual an opportunity to step up and get the skills for a better-paying job – and then come back later for more training.
Moving from earning $8 an hour to $25 an hour makes a huge difference for a family, Sullivan said.
The greatest deterrent to college success is time,” said Sullivan, adding that short-term programs are more sustainable for ensuring people stay on a guided pathway for earning credentials.
Allowing Pell grants for short-term programs “would help us tremendously with increasing access,” Merrill Irving Jr., president of Hennepin Technical College in Minnesota, emphasized. With it, Hennepin could attract students who have never considered enrolling in career and technical education, he said.
It would also help draw nontraditional-age students who are still served in high school programs but don’t qualify for dual or concurrent enrollment programs. “This would be an opportunity to get them on a pathway and into college,” said Irving, who serves on the AACC board of directors.
Among the short-term programs that Hennepin could expand because of workforce demands are hazardous waste materials, computer numerical control, community paramedic and Linux networking. That would help employers struggling with a shortage of skilled workers in an area with a low unemployment rate, Irving said. “Fundamentally, if we are going to sustain economic growth, this is critical,” he said.