Washington Watch: Promising news for short-term Pell

Photo: iStock

In a stunning substantive and political victory for community colleges, the U.S. House on Friday approved an amendment to competitiveness legislation that would establish new Pell Grant eligibility for short-term training programs and create a national postsecondary student unit record data system that the American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) has long supported. 

The legislation (America Competes Act, H.R. 4521) now moves to a House-Senate conference that will determine its fate.

The amendment was notable for being bipartisan – it was co-sponsored by Reps. Andy Levin (D-Michigan) and Anthony Gonzalez (R-Ohio) and approved with 24 Republican votes along with all but 7 voting Democrats.

In opposition

AACC had worked to persuade a number of Republican members to back the measure, which was opposed by Rep. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina), ranking member of the House Education and Labor Committee. Foxx’s statement in opposition to the amendment focused on concerns that the national data system would potentially violate privacy and noted that the new Pell eligibility would not apply to for-profit institutions.

“If House Democrats were looking to resurrect Joseph McCarthy’s political tactics from the 1950s, they’ve succeeded. The Levin amendment is nothing more than Pandora’s box that, if opened, would allow Washington bureaucrats to control the lives of every student and college graduate who calls this great nation home. This is precisely how authoritarian regimes assume power,” Foxx said in her statement.

 The nation’s largest private college association also opposed the amendment.

The requirements

The amendment would make programs between 150 and 600 clock hours (over at least 8 weeks) potentially Pell-eligible. Programs would have to meet several criteria before becoming eligible, and not all short-term programs should expect to qualify. Among the requirements, programs would have to demonstrate a wage increase of 20% for those completing the program (approximately six months after completion). Non-credit programs that articulate into credit courses and otherwise qualify can become eligible for Pell.

The amendment’s language derives from a compromise developed in the Senate last summer that was slated to be attached to the Senate’s version of the competitiveness legislation but was derailed by an objection from Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky). It is based on the Jumpstart Our Businesses by Supporting Students (JOBS) Act that AACC has long supported. JOBS Act sponsor Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Virginia) has been doggedly seeking a vehicle to move the bill, and Friday’s events are a result of that effort.

Political pairing

The addition of the College Transparency Act (CTA), slightly modified, played a key political role in the amendment’s passage. This brought the support of public four-year colleges, which had opposed short-term Pell Grant eligibility, along with other groups who have opposed it.

The measure is a logical complement to the short-term Pell amendment because some of its requirements will be fulfilled with data that the CTA would generate. But the potential adoption of the transparency legislation could represent a watershed in federal higher education policy, as federal data continue to suffer from serious shortcomings, many of which are addressed in the bill.


H.R. 4521 will be taken to conference with the Senate-passed measure (which passed on a bipartisan basis). The conference will likely be contentious as the House bill, which was passed on a partisan vote, differs markedly from the Senate bipartisan bill.  

In addition to the Levin-Gonzalez amendment, the House bill also would reauthorize two key community college programs – the Trade Adjustment Assistance Community College and Career Training Grants and the National Science Foundation’s Advanced Technological Education program. Nonetheless, the two bills will hopefully be merged and sent to the president for his signature.  AACC will work to ensure that the Levin-Gonzalez amendment is included in this final bill. Given the Capitol’s current political dynamics, predictions are particularly problematic, but it appears at least somewhat likely that the bill will ultimately make its way into law.

* * *

David Baime is senior vice president of government relations and Jim Hermes is associate vice president of government relations at the American Association of Community Colleges.