Here’s What Congress can Learn from States as it Considers Short Term Pell

By Brooke DeRenzis, February 29, 2024

Bipartisan proposals to expand Pell grants to high-quality, short-term training programs are garnering more attention in Congress. The bipartisan JOBS Act, which National Skills Coalition has endorsed and advocated for several years, is under consideration in the Senate along with three other bills in Congress.

Congress started debating proposals to expand Pell grants to short-term programs a decade ago. Over that time, non-degree credentials have transformed the educational landscape. There are currently hundreds of thousands of non-degree credentials offered in the U.S. including certificates, industry-based certifications, apprenticeships, and occupational licenses. Institutions of higher education have been at the center of this sea change: half of adults with a non-degree credential received their credential from a college/university, vocational/technical college, or community college.

As federal legislation has stalled, several states have taken action to respond to this shift. For the past five years, National Skills Coalition has worked with states to define what makes a non-degree credential high quality and to adopt related policies. As Congress considers how to expand Pell grants to high-quality, short-term programs, it should draw on what states have learned about connecting quality credentials to good jobs, economic mobility and a more inclusive economy.

In the face of industry and technological change, workers, businesses, and states are turning to non-degree credentials for upskilling.

Working people and adult learners make up a big and growing share of today’s college students. One reason why: as industry practices and technology rapidly change, so do jobs and the skills they require. In this context, more adults are looking to quickly learn new skills or upgrade their existing skills so they can advance their careers and get ahead economically.

Non-degree credential programs offer a way to do that, especially for those balancing upskilling with the responsibilities of a job and family. In addition to being occupation-specific, non-degree credentials tend to be more affordable and take less time to complete than a degree. That’s why it’s no surprise that nearly as many working-age adults have completed a non-degree credential program (40%) as have completed a college degree (46%), according to a 2020 Strada-Gallup Education Survey. Based on this trend, most states now include non-degree credentials as part of their postsecondary education attainment goals.

People of color and women are actively pursuing non-degree credentials to improve their careers. Black, Indigenous, and Latinx working-age adults are more likely than white and Asian working-age adults to have a non-degree credential as their highest level of postsecondary experience, and women of color are overrepresented among non-degree credential holders.

Several major companies and at least 13 states have shifted their recruitment strategies to skills-based hiring –prioritizing applicants’ skills, competencies, and experience over four-year degree requirements. Skills based hiring has the potential to open up opportunities to a broader, more diverse range of candidates. But, for skills-based hiring to work, we need a system for validating skills and competencies. That’s where quality non-degree credentials come in: they certify that people with a credential have a specific set of skills and competencies aligned with an occupation’s requirements and validated by industry leaders.

States have created programs to make high-quality, short-term training more affordable, and the American public supports similar expansion of the Pell grant.

The Pell Grant is the primary federal student aid grant program for students with low incomes. Unlike student loans, Pell Grants do not have to be paid back.

Despite the growing prevalence of skills training in higher education, the Pell Grant program excludes students enrolled in short-term training programs that take less than fifteen weeks to complete. This means that adults with low incomes who are training to be phlebotomists, commercial truck drivers, and HVAC maintenance technicians are paying for programs out of pocket instead of accessing the same financial assistance available to people in workforce training programs that are just a few weeks longer.

Given this gap in federal aid, states like Louisiana, Iowa, and Virginia have already invested in financial aid programs to support students enrolled in high quality, short-term training programs. And these investments seem to be paying off: for example, a recent study of Virginia’s FastForward grant program found that FastForward students are significantly more likely to complete their programs than comparable students in credit-bearing, short-term certificate programs awarded by Virginia community colleges. Seventy percent earned an industry-recognized credential, which is associated with a quarterly earnings gain of roughly $1,000 and an increased likelihood of being employed.

The success of these states’ financial aid programs suggest that short-term Pell, a policy proposal that enjoys support from the broader American public, could help scale these benefits nationwide. Earlier this month, National Skills Coalition co-hosted a Congressional briefing with the National Institute for Civil Discourse, highlighting findings from their recent member survey. Eighty-nine percent of respondents expressed support for expanding Pell Grant eligibility to cover short-term workforce education programs with strong support from both Democrats (90%) and Republicans (88%). Respondents also strongly agreed that it’s crucial to ensure that Pell grants only support programs that effectively place them in higher paying jobs.

A national survey conducted by the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies also demonstrated strong public support for short-term Pell, particularly among Black people and women. Sixty-four percent of all respondents, 74 percent of Black respondents, and 68 percent of women believe that allowing students to use Pell Grants to make short-term programs more affordable should be an important or top priority for Congress.

States have identified five quality assurance criteria to determine which non-degree credentials provide value to working people, students, and businesses.

Non-degree credentials can offer workers a pathway to better jobs and further postsecondary education and training. Research shows that a non-degree credential can lead to important employment and earnings gains, particularly for adults who have no other postsecondary experience.

Still, not all non-degree credentials lead to career or educational advancement. When they don’t, they can entrench economic inequities that impact people of color and women. That’s why quality assurance is imperative.

For the past five years, National Skills Coalition has worked with several states to define, measure, and track what makes a credential high quality. NSC and our state partners have determined that quality non-degree credentials should satisfy the following criteria:

  • There are substantial job opportunities associated with the credential.
  • The education and training program associated with the credential must include clearly defined competencies that align with skills requirements of associated job opportunities.
  • There is evidence that people have improved employment and earnings outcomes after getting the credential. Additional indicators of job quality like health or retirement benefits, sick leave, and regular, dependable hours also matter.
  • The credential is stackable to additional education or training through mechanisms like career pathway programs, credit articulation and transfer agreements, and credit for prior learning.
  • The credential is portable to a range of job opportunities and employers, providing the credential holder with more agency and career options among multiple firms.

These quality criteria reflect what working people, students, and businesses most want from non-degree credentials. For working people and students, these criteria help ensure that non-degree credentials lead to job opportunities with better pay or compensation and that time spent in training counts toward future education. For businesses, these criteria help ensure that credentials are validated by industry leaders and serve as trusted indicators of workers’ skills and competencies.

States have identified good, privacy-protected data as key to quality and equity.

Good, privacy-protected data are essential to determining the quality of non-degree credentials, including whether credentials lead to better paying jobs. Disaggregating data on outcomes like employment and earnings by race/ethnicity and gender is key to ensuring that non-degree credentials promote racial and gender equity instead of intensifying inequities.

States are also looking to use data to report program outcomes to policymakers and the public. Transparent, public reports on program outcomes allow working people and students to have timely and accurate information about program access, success, costs, and outcomes and give policymakers information they need to develop policies to support working people and students better and more equitably.

At a February convening hosted by National Skills Coalition at Lone Star College in Houston, TX, a group of fifty state and national leaders came together to identify progress states have made to report on quality, outcomes, and impact of non-degree credentials. Participants underscored the important need for robust and integrated data systems, disaggregated data to measure equity, and mechanisms to share report information to students, workers, businesses, and policymakers so that people can make data-informed decisions.

A number of the needs identified by state partners would be addressed at the federal level by the College Transparency Act. This bill would modernize the college reporting system to provide good, privacy-protected data on student outcomes like completion and earnings for all postsecondary programs. National Skills Coalition, along with the Institute for Higher Education Policy (IHEP) and 150 organizations are urging Congress to pass the College Transparency Act. In addition to benefiting workers and students, CTA can support businesses who are hiring.

We need both quality credentials and quality jobs for racial and gender equity in the workforce.

National Skills Coalition believes that every worker, in every industry, deserves good jobs that allow them to thrive economically. Equitable and affordable access to high-quality skills training and credentials are critical to that pursuit. So are efforts to disrupt occupational segregation and ensure that every job is a good job.

Non-degree credentials exist in systems marred by longstanding racial and gender inequities. Research released this year by Urban Institute shows that while education does pay off, job quality disparities by race and gender exist among workers with the same levels of education due in large part to racism and sexism in the labor market. Indeed, Black and Latinx workers and women are concentrated in lower-quality jobs and industries.

These inequities are not coincidental: work historically done by Black and brown people and women has been devalued and left out of worker protection laws. At the same time, racist and sexist laws, policies, and practices have created and reinforced occupational segregation. 

As we call on Congress to expand Pell grants to high-quality, short-term programs, we must also press Congress to invest in additional policies that work hand-in-hand with those programs to strengthen working people’s access to quality jobs and reduce occupational segregation. These include policies to invest in high-road industry partnerships and equity-focused career navigation and supportive services.

And we must lend our voices to efforts to ensure that every job is a quality job. Affordable access to skills training and quality non-degree credentials will have an even bigger impact on working people’s economic well-being and an inclusive economy if every job has good wages and benefits, fair and safe working conditions, respect and agency, and equity and inclusion.

To get involved in NSC’s efforts to make quality non-degree credentials more affordable and equitable, join our Making College Work campaign by signing up here.