‘Consensus’ on Pell for short-term programs?

iStock

The chair of the House Education and Labor Committee on Wednesday reiterated his support to allow Pell grants to cover qualifying short-term training programs, noting that community colleges would play a key role in such an effort.

The issue of expanding Pell eligibility to short-term programs was among the wide range of issues discussed Wednesday at a House Higher Education and Workforce Investment Subcommittee hearing on what higher education will look like post-Covid. Although Democrats and Republicans on the panel — and the witnesses, too — were at odds on many issues, there seemed to be agreement on the need to allow participants enrolled in certain short-term training programs to use Pell.

“I think there is a consensus this is a good idea,” Rep. Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) said at the conclusion of the hearing.

But he noted a caveat: keeping out unscrupulous training providers. To ensure that, the Pell extension could be limited to mainly community colleges and referrals from workforce investment boards.

Lindsey Burke, director of the Center for Education Policy at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, said that could work, if states had a role in determining which industries in their state could provide those short-term courses to ensure accountability.

Extending Pell eligibility has support among community colleges, including the American Association of Community Colleges, and among congressional leaders in both chambers. A 2020 U.S. Education Department report said students who received Pell grants for short-term training programs were more likely to enroll at a postsecondary institution and complete a program.

Members of the House subcommittee also agreed that another critical way to support career and technical education is to promote those programs better at high schools and to highlight career opportunities and postsecondary education. Many good-paying jobs in fields such as healthcare, construction and IT — several of them deemed “essential” during the pandemic — don’t necessarily need a four-year degree. These programs are typically offered at community colleges, which are more affordable than four-year institutions.

On different sides

A good chunk of the discussion on Wednesday focused on for-profit institutions. Several Democrats noted their growing enrollment during the pandemic as they have expanded advertising to attract students.

“These institutions have a well-documented record of using taxpayer dollars to target vulnerable students during economic downturns, leaving them with worthless degrees and unreasonable loans,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson (D-Florida), chair of the subcommittee. “We cannot allow history to repeat itself.”

Meanwhile, Republicans said they want better oversight of how colleges and universities use their allotted funds provided through three federal pandemic-relief packages.

“College boards of trustees and regents need to direct their universities to tackle program prioritization and reinvest funds in programs that advance their core mission, rather than continuing to engage in a facilities and amenities arms race,” agreed Burke.

She also encouraged better publicity of the U.S. Education Department’s College Scorecard so families can review information to determine which colleges to attend. That would encourage colleges to keep their spending in check and to focus on academic programs.

“Sunlight really is the best disinfectant, and that applies to accountability with the higher education system as well,” Burke said.

How colleges use the funds

Eloy Ortiz Oakley, chancellor of the California community college system, said that public two-year colleges are using their pandemic-related funds to provide students — many of whom are struggling financially during the pandemic — with laptops, wi-fi and even emergency grants so they can buy food or cover unexpected expenses that might force them to drop out.

“There is no future for higher education if our students cannot afford to stay in school,” he said.

In terms of oversight of spending, Oakley noted that most colleges have a balance between administrative and instruction costs. In California, community colleges must, by law, apply at least half their state funding toward instruction, which includes student supports to help them succeed. He added that there is solid oversight and accountability provided by various locally elected boards as well as the state system, which has a board of governors.

“There is sunlight all over our system,” Oakley said. “These questions are constantly addressed, they are constantly examined, and we are constantly being held accountable for where our dollars go.”

About the Author

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