Bipartisan push for Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act

(From left) Reps. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) and Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) on Wednesday encouraged business leaders to tell their lawmakers why they support the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act. (All images from streamed event)

The chair and ranking member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee on Wednesday encouraged business leaders to let their congressional representatives know that they support a bipartisan House bill that would extend Pell Grant eligibility to quality short-term workforce education programs.

Reps. Virginia Foxx (R-North Carolina) and Bobby Scott (D-Virginia) spoke on stage together at the Business Roundtable’s CEO Workforce Forum in Washington, D.C., and encouraged attendees to let lawmakers know how critical the Bipartisan Workforce Pell Act (BWPA) would be for them. The measure was scheduled for House floor consideration last Thursday under a “suspension of the rules” (meaning that it would have to receive support from two-thirds of the members present), but it was removed after two teachers’ unions announced they opposed the bill, which would have likely doom the measure. Supporters now are trying to determine the best pathway to get passage in the House.

“Short-term Pell would just revolutionize job training,” said Scott, noting similar short-term programs run by Virginia community colleges have shown to double an individual’s salary. But for many, the cost to participate in such programs is prohibitive, he said. Using a Pell Grant to cover those costs “would transform their lives,” he added.

Contention over funding source

Scott acknowledged a significant challenge with the bill is how to pay for it. Priorities set forth by House Republicans require finding existing funds to pay for new programs, Scott said, so the committee would have to tap funding from one of the programs it oversees.

“There are not too many pots of money where you can find $1.5 billion,” he said, observing crucial large programs such as school lunch programs and Title I are not options.

Instead, BWPA would require colleges with endowments of more than $500,000 per student to make “risk-sharing” payments to the federal government for any loan amounts that are not paid or forgiven under certain terms of conditions. Hence, the American Council on Education has opposed the legislation in its current form, and the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers last week came out in opposition of the bill, citing their own concerns about the “pay for.”

Scott said opponents of the bill have been more vocal with their congressional representatives than those who would benefit from the legislation. Hearing from business and industry on why the bill is important to them would send a strong message to Congress, he said.

Foxx agreed: “You have a lot more power than you realize you have to change the minds of members of Congress.”

The lawmakers also discussed their bipartisan approach to rework the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA), the nation’s main job training law. The House committee’s recently passed A Stronger Workforce for America Act would upgrade WIOA to keep up with business and industry needs, the committee leaders said. Scott cited individual training accounts in the measure as well as more emphasis on training individuals who are hard to job-place, such as youths and justice-involved individuals; Foxx meanwhile emphasized the increased accountability in the bill via performance-based funding.

Partnerships, lifelong learning and more

Foxx and Scott also answered broad questions about continued learning and education pathways. Foxx said she invites community college presidents and high school principals when she visits companies so they can better understand the needs of business and industry. She also cited the successes of programs like dual enrollment and early college to help students gauge possible career and postsecondary interests.

Both lawmakers emphasized that rapid changes in the workplace now require lifelong learning, whether upskilling for current jobs or reskilling for new ones. Even attaining a four-year degree doesn’t mean job security, Foxx said, noting that more Americans are looking at less expensive postsecondary education options such as community college and certificates.

Benefits for businesses

The workforce forum also included panel discussions with company CEOs and a few postsecondary education leaders. Juan Salgado, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago (CCC), noted that more companies understand the potential of working with community colleges to help replenish their workforce. He observed that on Wednesday, his system announced a new partnership with the University of Chicago to provide expanded nursing and lab technician programs that will lead to hundreds of new jobs.

“We are not only a source of talent, but we are becoming a source of economic development,” Salgado said.

Juan Salgado, chancellor of City Colleges of Chicago, says a growing number of businesses are learning about the benefits of partnering with community colleges, especially from other companies.

Although CCC reaches out to companies, what’s increasingly happening is companies are talking with each other about the benefits of community colleges, Salgado said, citing high-profile endeavors with companies like Aon and Accenture. CEOs on the panel highlighted their workforce development efforts with local community colleges, especially among apprenticeships.

Career connections

The audience also heard from first lady Dr. Jill Biden, who focused on career-connected learning in high schools. She said many high school students are smart and have ambition but they need guidance on career pathways.

“I see firsthand the students out of high school who have no idea what they want to do next,” said Biden, a long-time English professor at Northern Virginia Community College.

Biden said exploring potential career paths in high school would benefit all students, especially those who may not go on to a four-year college, noting that nearly 60% of graduating high school students don’t go directly to a baccalaureate college. She encouraged businesses to provide more on-the-job learning opportunities for those students.

First lady Dr. Jill Biden emphasizes the need for career-connected learning in high schools.

About the Author

Matthew Dembicki
Matthew Dembicki edits Community College Daily and serves as associate vice president of communications for the American Association of Community Colleges.
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