Washington Watch: The evidence for short-term Pell Grant eligibility

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The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has released a policy brief that makes the case for new Pell Grant eligibility for short-term workforce education programs, citing a series of studies on which this support is based. (An earlier brief set forth community college affordability priorities.)  

Although this issue’s prominence has receded in recent months, it is guaranteed to move to the forefront of higher education policy and political debates when legislators are able to focus beyond the pandemic. The issue will certainly be part of the debate on the Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization, when that is hopefully taken up in the next Congress. 

AACC has advocated on this issue for many months.

Topics examined

The brief examines, among other things:

  • The role of short-term programs in the postsecondary credential landscape
  •  Why AACC supports expanding Pell Grant eligibility to high-quality, short-term programs
  •  Legislative proposals, such as the JOBS Act, to provide funding for short-term programs
  •  The availability and condition of data on short-term program outcomes (e.g., post-program jobs and earnings)
  • Potential new directions and policies for short-term programs

The core legislation proposal for creating new short-term program Pell Grant eligibility remains the Jumpstart Our Business Starts (JOBS) Act (identical bills, S. 839 and H.R. 3497 in the 116th Congress). AACC strongly supports this bipartisan, bicameral legislation that would extend Pell Grant eligibility for both credit and non-credit programs of 150 to 599 hours in length, or its equivalent, if they meet other criteria.

The JOBS Act has garnered 74 House and 25 Senate co-sponsors. The College Affordability Act (H.R. 4674), approved by the House Education and Labor Committee in October 2019, contained another version of this eligibility. AACC had reservations about one of its provisions, which would place limitations on eligibility, including an earnings requirement.

Supportive data

Absent comprehensive national data, the brief reviews state level short-term program outcomes data. Some states collect information on non-credit as well as credit certificate programs, including financial outcomes, such as employability and earnings.

An analysis of non-credit short-term programs in Virginia, Louisiana, and Iowa shows the economic benefits of these programs. Positive financial outcomes were evident for credit programs in Iowa, Wisconsin and Colorado. Studies of California programs intended to stack credentials also showed economic gains.

Establishing Pell Grant eligibility for short-term programs has proven to be highly controversial. Although not treated in detail, the brief counters some of these arguments against this use of Pell Grants.

Opposition to this new eligibility stems from many sources, across the political spectrum and from both public and private four-year sectors of higher education. The arguments include: short-term programs don’t have proven results; the programs represent a form of tracking; the programs don’t lead to “good jobs”; the Pell Grant program just wasn’t created for this type of educational program; this new eligibility would lead to abuses by the ever-rapacious for-profit sector.

AACC will disseminate the policy brief to key Capitol Hill offices. The association also will soon feature the brief on its Community College Voice podcast. 

About the Author

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