Businesses need employees with the right skills. Meeting this goal is a constant challenge. Pre-Covid-19, 7 million job openings went unfilled, attributable in large part to a skills gap.
The economy recovering from the pandemic has these and additional challenges. Many jobs are at risk of not returning, affecting disproportionately the economically disadvantaged, particularly people of color and women.
The nature of work is also changing. Advances in technology and other factors, many accelerated by the pandemic, are spurring the creation of new jobs, the vast majority of which will require some form of postsecondary education.
The JOBS Act is about helping students prepare for good jobs. As the title indicates, the Jumpstart Our Businesses by Supporting Students (JOBS) Act establishes Pell Grant eligibility for students to acquire in-demand skills within shorter, targeted programs.
The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has supported the JOBS Act since it was first introduced in the 115th Congress and reintroduced each subsequent Congress. AACC endorses, along with other organizations, the bill introduced in the 117th Congress this month.
Quality assurance provisions
The purpose of the JOBS Act is “expanding Pell Grant eligibility to students enrolled in rigorous and high-quality short-term skills and job training programs that lead to industry-based credentials and ultimately employment in high-wage, high-skill industry sectors or careers,” according to a press release from Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia), who reintroduced the legislation.
However, the bill continues to meet strong opposition. Critics of extending Pell eligibility to short-term programs contend that there isn’t enough data to support its enactment, and where data exist, they show poor or inconsistent outcomes for short-term credentials. These criticisms ignore the fact that the JOBS Act does not provide for universal extension of Pell eligibility to all short-term programs. Therefore, data that don’t distinguish between programs that would be considered eligible and those that would not under the JOBS Act are not on point.
To ensure program quality, only programs that meet certain requirements would be Pell-eligible under the JOBS Act. These include:
- Instruction of at least 150 clock hours over 8 weeks
- Alignment with the requirements of employers in a state or local economy
- Program completers awarded a recognized postsecondary credential
- Applicable prerequisites for licensure or certification are satisfied
- Accredited for quality and student outcomes
- Offered by an eligible training provider (restricted to public institutions of higher education), as defined in the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). (There is a public dashboard on the employment and wage outcomes of eligible training programs.)
- Articulation exists for a longer-term program if the student seeks an additional credential or degree
- Meets the reporting requirements under the gainful employment rule
The JOBS Act also mandates an inter-agency data-sharing agreement between the U.S. Education (ED) and Labor departments to share WIOA performance outcome metrics, including program completion and median earnings, a provision AACC strongly supports.
Community colleges as economic engines
Middle skills jobs are an important component of a recovering and thriving economy. Community colleges provide those middle skills (i.e., sub-baccalaureate credentials) to millions of students. At last count, community colleges educate and train about 12 million students in for-credit (7 million ) and non-credit programs (5 million).
In the wake of the Great Recession, ED in 2011 launched two pilot tests – for students with and those without a bachelor’s degree – focused on expanding Pell eligibility to short-term programs. The results of the experimental sites initiative were released in December. Community colleges represented almost three-fourths (72 percent) of the institutions participating in the pilot involving non-baccalaureate students.
These students, who were offered a Pell Grant to enroll in programs lasting between eight and 15 weeks, experienced higher completion (47% vs. 38% within 10 months) and earnings than their counterparts not offered a Pell Grant. They were 15% more likely to enroll in additional education and more likely to complete in-demand programs, both provisions of the JOBS Act.
In a JOBS Act factsheet, data from various sources – U.S. Census Bureau, ED and the Strada-Gallup Education Consumer Survey – were cited showing the earnings premium of short-term credential recipients, including African-Americans, Latinos and women. While disparities in earnings by race/ethnicity, gender and program type are acknowledged, it states that “expanding Pell grants to high-quality, short-term programs could help more underrepresented adults of color earn postsecondary credentials by making education and training more affordable for them.”
An AACC policy brief on short-term programs presented state-level data also showing that for some types of fields, credentials earned in both credit and non-credit programs result in higher employability and earnings.
Enactment of the JOBS Act is far from assured. It is essential that community college leaders express their support of the JOBS Act to help their students earn their first credential and continue along their career pathways. At this moment, the JOBS Act needs “co-sponsors” – a formal endorsement of a bill – in both the House and Senate. Encourage your congressional delegation to co-sponsor the JOBS Act and please thank the members who have already done so.