A rejuvenated push for HEA

A roundtable discussion Monday on HEA reauthorization at Northern Virginia Community College included (seated from left) President Anne Kress, Virginia Community Colleges Chancellor Glenn DuBois and Sen. Tim Kaine. (Photo: NOVA)

Despite missing several previous target dates, the Senate education committee that is crafting legislation to reauthorize the nation’s main higher education law still aims to do so before the end of the year, according to several lawmakers.

“It’s the top priority of the HELP Committee right now,” said Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee. He participated Monday in a roundtable discussion at Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA) about reauthorizing the Higher Education Act (HEA).

Kaine is promoting two bills that he wants to include in the legislation: one to allow students to use Pell grants for high-quality, short-term programs, and the other one to provide students with more support services to help them attain credentials.

Short-term Pell and earnings

The JOBS Act, introduced last year by Kaine and Sen. Bob Portman (R-Ohio), would allow students to use Pell grants for certain short-term programs, an idea that has garnered growing support over the past few years among community college advocates and lawmakers. Although the proposal has bipartisan support, some question whether the earnings of students who use Pell for short-term programs would equal that of students who use traditional Pell grants to help pay for their college, Kaine said.

A new report released on Monday indicates that they would. It shows short-term certificate programs yield not only immediate earning increases but also better earnings over the years. Individuals who finished the programs at community colleges in Virginia and Louisiana earned $6,180 to $6,716 more over the year after completing, according to the report by Old Dominion University in Virginia. 

“Average post-credential wages in almost every industry category far exceeded average wages for high school graduates in Virginia and Louisiana,” noted the report, which added that wage gains were particularly strong for individuals in low-income areas in Virginia.

In Colorado, individuals who completed short-term certificate programs at community colleges continued to see sustained median wage gains five and 10 years after earning a short-term credential (increases of $8,963 and $13,252, respectively).

Virginia’s program to provide student grants for short-term training focuses on working adults who don’t have the time or resources for longer-term programs. The completion and job placement rates of students in FastFoward are “north of 90 percent,” said Glenn DuBois, chancellor of the Virginia Community College System.

Many of the students who completed the programs are now re-enrolling and seeking their next career opportunity, he added.

Benefitting other students

Allowing short-term Pell grants also would help other populations of students, according to participants of Monday’s meeting. For example, students facing hunger and housing insecurities could more quickly earn a credential that leads to better-paying, more-meaningful employment, said NOVA President Anne Kress. At her college, about one-third of students report that they face food and housing insecurity, with nearly 12 percent saying they are homeless.

Short-term Pell opportunities also could generate interest in career and technical education among high school students, who often don’t even consider short-term programs as a postsecondary option because they don’t have the means to pay for them, NOVA officials said. 

Offering more support services

Kaine also wants to provide more wraparound services — counseling, childcare, transportation and other non-instructional services — to students through the ACCESS Act, which he introduced last month with Sen. Tom Young (R-Indiana). The bipartisan bill would create a grant program to help community colleges and states address changing workforce demands. It aims to boost student success and career readiness by increasing work-based learning opportunities, ensuring students have access to support services such as career navigators and counselors, and creating career pathways to meet the changing skill demands of the U.S. economy.

Although student scholarships and grants typically get the spotlight, student support services are more important because they provide an array of assistance that helps students overcome challenges to complete a credential, Kaine said. 

Kaine also said he wants to help military personnel who are transitioning into civil life attain credit for their prior work experience. Too often, these individuals have military experience working as, for example, aviation mechanics and medics, but when they return to the civilian workforce, “They have to start at ground zero” and earn a credential, the senator said.

Military spouses also face challenges in the workforce. During the roundtable discussion, a NOVA student who is married to a Marine recalled how relocating made it difficult for her to finish a postsecondary education and to find a job. Kaine noted that the federal government has done a good job over the past several years of lowering the unemployment rate of military veterans, but their spouses continue to struggle to find jobs.

The panel also discussed outdated job requirements and processes among employers that prevent them from hiring qualified workers. For example, federal government jobs too often list a baccalaureate as an entry-level credential, which may exclude potential applicants who have relevant credentials and experiences that would make them good job candidates. 

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
is editor of Community College Daily and serves as publications director for the American Association of Community Colleges.