Washington Watch: Short-term training politics get tough

Motherhood, apple pie and federal support for short-term training – these are all things that everyone likes, right?

Unfortunately for community college students, in the ongoing Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization debate that is increasingly not the case. As the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC), Association for Community College Trustees and a few other stakeholders focus on extending Pell Grant funding for programs that are less than two-thirds of a year in length, heated opposition has emerged. As a result, community colleges must redouble their efforts to secure substantial new support for these programs.

The case for short-term training would seem to never be stronger, as the still-expanding economy — with its extraordinarily low unemployment rate — demands more skilled workers across most sectors. And community colleges have designed a variety of programs to get people into some of these jobs quickly and efficiently. These programs are in areas such as welding, pharmacy technician, wastewater management and more.

But the cost of the programs remains a barrier for low-income individuals who badly want the wage hike that these programs can provide.

Support the JOBS Act

In this context, AACC strongly supports the JOBS Act (S. 839, Jumpstart Our Nation’s Business Act), introduced in March by Sens. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) and Tim Kaine (D-Virginia). On Wednesday, an identical bill (H.R. 3497) was introduced in the House. The  legislation would create new Pell Grant eligibility for students in programs that are at least 150 hours in length, including non-credit programs. It also include a series of “guardrails” designed to keep out programs at for-profit and other institutions that fail to provide meaningful employment opportunities.

Unfortunately, increased support to include the JOBS Act in a reauthorized HEA has engendered intense opposition to the concept, a rarity when new support for needy students is under consideration. The opposition comes from the political left, right and — perhaps most painfully for AACC — public and private four-year institutions.

The litany of stated concerns include:

  • A history of exploitation of students by the for-profit industry
  • Additional Pell Grant expenditures that the program cannot easily absorb
  • A lack of long-term career pathways for students who enroll in the programs
  • A paucity of convincing, broad-based empirical data demonstrating the earnings gains associated with those programs
  • The likelihood that female, lower-income and minority students will be ”tracked” into these programs

A lingering bias against career education underlies these arguments, or at least a sense that this support should be provided through other federal laws.

Do the right thing

These allegations can be forcefully rebuked, but as each contains grains of truth, it is hard to dispel them entirely. The bigger issue is whether low-income members of our society who are striving to do better economically merit help from the federal government.

AACC believes that it is quite short-sighted and harmful to the nation’s economy to deny these students this opportunity. This is particularly the case when students can receive Pell Grant support for a four-year program in any liberal studies area, no questions asked. The JOBS Act does not allow students to take out federal loans, which could be problematic for some low-income students, but would also help to protect against their exploitation.

AACC will continue to work on this issue in Washington, but your help is needed. Take a few minutes to contact your federal legislators and urge them to support the inclusion of the JOBS Act in HEA. Click here and go to “Promote Short-Term Pell” to send a letter to your member of Congress, or, even better, craft your own letter.

Contact AACC’s government relations staff if you have any questions about this process.

Your students and your local economy need you to be active now. Thank you for your important work on this key issue.

About the Author

David Baime
is senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis at the American Association of Community Colleges.