Agreement on short-term Pell, but…

Rep. Nita Lowey (D-New York), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, addresses U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos at Tuesday's hearing. (image: Screenshot of hearing)

House appropriators on both sides of the aisle support extending Pell Grant eligibility to quality short-term programs, but Democrats on a House education funding subcommittee want assurances that unscrupulous colleges won’t exploit the expansion for their own profits.

During a House education appropriations subcommittee hearing Tuesday on the president’s proposed fiscal 2020 budget for education — which would cut overall education funding by $7.1 billion (10 percent) — members of the panel also asked U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos how the U.S. Education Department would handle an expected increase in Pell recipients if the proposal was enacted.

“That’s actually something I’ve been supportive of but never found a way to finance because I think the demand would be just tremendous,” said ranking member Rep. Tom Cole (R-Oklahoma).

Democrats noted it would be especially difficult in light of the Trump administration’s recommendation to level fund the Pell program and rescind $2 billion of the Pell surplus.

Same number of Pell students

DeVos said she thinks “there’s a little presumption going on with the math that this would be an additive program.” She said she suspects many Pell-eligible students attending degree-granting programs would opt instead to take shorter-term programs, which would align more with their education goals. If that were the case, there would not be a significant increase in the number of Pell recipients, she said.

DeVos said the proposal — which has also been mentioned in discussions to reauthorize the Higher Education Act — would tie into the administration’s efforts to boost career and technical education efforts as employers continue to seek enough skilled workers for available jobs.

In light of recent high profile closures of for-profit institutions that abruptly closed and left students with college debt and no credentials, appropriators told DeVos they want to make sure institutional scammers don’t find their way into student aid for short-term programs. Democrats also asked the education secretary about the department’s efforts to help defrauded students, which seems to have stalled.

GOP questions

Although Democrats grilled DeVos on a range of issues from vouchers and school safety to civil rights, several Republicans noted that they weren’t totally aboard with the administration’s funding proposal. Cole said it was “somewhat shortsighted” of the administration to eliminate or consolidate certain successful programs, such as a $110 million cut to TRIO programs.

He was also concerned about the proposal to move TRIO from several competitive grant programs to a state formula grant program, as well as the recommendation to consolidate funding for minority-serving institutions into a single funding stream.

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“These institutions serve distinct populations with different needs, and I’m not certain that such a change makes sense,” he said.

Cole also asked DeVos about the administration’s proposal for $60 million to fund a fast-track pre-apprenticeship program that would focus on helping more adults meet the basic entrance requirements for apprenticeship programs. He said he wants a “clearer definition so we’re not funding the same thing twice.”

Risk-sharing concerns

Several Democrats also addressed the administration’s proposal to hold colleges partially financially accountable for federal student loans. Rep. Barbara Lee (D-California) said such institutional risk-sharing could prompt colleges to limit access to low-income and minority students in an effort to keep default rates down. DeVos agreed that it’s a concern and that the department was open to ideas.

In a discussion on college costs, DeVos said the department would soon add program-level data, such as potential earnings, by institution to its College Scorecard. This would help families determine if enrolling in certain programs would be worth the investment, she said.

On March 27, the House Education and Labor Subcommittee on Higher Education and Workforce Investment holds a hearing on innovations in expanding registered apprenticeship programs. Mark Hays, vice chancellor of workforce and economic development at the Dallas County Community College District in Texas, will testify.

About the Author

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