Does short-term Pell work?

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Students who received Pell grants for short-term training programs were more likely to enroll at a postsecondary institution and complete a program, according to a new report from the U.S. Education Department (ED). 

In 2011, ED launched two pilot tests focused on expanding Pell Grant eligibility to address concerns emerging from the Great Recession that tuition and fees could be barriers to occupational training. Forty-six postsecondary institutions participated as a study school in one or both of the pilots, 72% of which were public two-year colleges, most of them located in the southeastern United States.

One pilot program offered Pell grants for very short-term training programs – those lasting 8 to 15 weeks. The programs were primarily in fields such as transportation and materials moving, health professions, security and protective services, and mechanic and repair technologies. 

Students who were offered a Pell Grant to pay for one of the very short training programs were 15 percentage points more likely to enroll in additional education at one of the 28 pilot schools than students who did not receive the offer – 66% enrolled within 8 months vs. 52%. In terms of completion, 47% of the students offered an experimental Pell Grant completed a program within 10 months, compared to 38% of those not offered these funds. They also were more likely to complete programs in high demand in their states. 

Of the 2,270 students in this study, about half (53%) already had some college education. The average student age was 32, and the average gross income was $22,451. They received, on average, $1,312 in Pell Grant funding. 

Pell for students with bachelor’s degrees

The second pilot program provided Pell grants to 414 low-income students with bachelor’s degrees for short occupational training lasting up to one year with full-time attendance. 

“Lowering the cost barrier to these programs could allow low-income adults to invest in a new career or update their skills in their current field,” the report said. 

As with the other pilot program, enrollment and completion rates increased. Students with a bachelor’s degree were 26 percentage points more likely to enroll when offered an experimental Pell Grant to pay for a short occupational training program (78% vs. 52%). And 52% of the students offered an experimental Pell Grant completed a program within 30 months at a study school, compared to 36% of those who were not offered these funds. 

In both pilot programs, being offered an experimental Pell Grant “had no impact on the share of students taking out federal student loans or the average amount of federal student loans they received,” the report said. However, only 9% of students offered Pell for very short-term occupational training took out federal loans, while 33% of students with bachelor’s degrees who were offered experimental Pell grants did so. 

Questions and concerns

In both pilots, students had already completed the federal student aid application, and they expressed interest in a program of study at the college before learning about their eligibility for an experimental Pell Grant. A question in the report is whether the pilot programs’ positive results could be achieved if the program expanded nationwide.

Other unanswered questions: Does the availability of Pell grants for short-term training shift students away from longer programs, such as associate-degree programs? And what is the economic value of short-term occupational training programs? Employment and wage data were not able to be accessed for the study, so “labor market returns from the two experiments and how these compare to the cost of expanding Pell Grant eligibility remain important open questions for the future,” the report said. 

About the Author

Tabitha Whissemore
is a contributor to Community College Daily and managing editor of AACC's Community College Journal.