Looking Back at Short-Term Pell and Future Prospects

By Jennifer Stiddard, August 01, 2022

The narrative of the JOBS Act (Jumpstart Our Business by supporting Students Act) started with its introduction in 2014 by then-Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA). Since then, the JOBS Act has undergone several legislative language changes, developed strong bipartisan support, seen a multi-year pilot implemented by the Department of Education, passed as an amendment in the House, had thousands of stakeholders participate in advocacy efforts, and faced years of debate over how best to execute this needed improvement to the Pell Grant program. At the heart of this effort was a drive to help businesses hire the skilled workers they desire and expand access and affordability across opportunities for workers seeking high-quality, short-term credentials in in-demand sectors and occupations. It has been a journey for NSC and our network, but high expectations for passage of the JOBS Act in 2022 now remain in question.

The JOBS Act is a key part of NSC’s ‘Making College Work’ Campaign, which was developed in response to postsecondary challenges identified by our network. The campaign centers around adopting higher education policies that fully support working people’s needs, career goals and economic mobility – as well as businesses that depend on a pipeline of trained, skilled workers. One of the central pillars of that campaign is making debt-free financial aid available to students, including to those who want to enroll in high-quality, shorter-term education and training programs. The JOBS Act would help achieve this goal by providing financial aid eligibility to qualified students who are enrolled in high-quality postsecondary education and training programs that are at least 150 clock hours and 8 weeks in length. Current federal limits are set at a minimum of 600 clock hours (or approximately two-thirds of a typical academic year) and 15 weeks in length. This leaves students taking many in-demand programs in sectors such as health care, IT, and manufacturing ineligible for the federal Pell Grant program. Enacting the JOBS Act would provide thousands of dollars of federal financial aid for students enrolled in these programs, and potentially provide additional financial aid access to students in states that link state postsecondary aid eligibility to federal standards.

Replaying Last Year

The past year marked the most promising opportunity for passage of the JOBS Act since its initial introduction eight years ago. This is due, in no small part, to eight years of advocacy efforts by NSC’s network and coalition members, as well as work from the bill’s co-leads Senators Kaine (D-VA) and Portman (R-OH) and Representatives Levin (D-MI) and Gonzalez (R-OH). Just this spring NSC spearheaded a letter to Congressional leadership in cooperation with several coalition members. The letterhad just over 300 signatures from organizations across the country. Additionally, NSC members have made calls, sent emails, and participated in numerous meetings with Congressional members and staff.

It is rare for a bill like the JOBS Act to pass through Congress in the traditional sense – committee hearings, committee vote, and floor votes in both chambers. Instead, legislation like JOBS is usually attached to a larger legislative vehicle or package.

In June 2021, there was an opportunity to attach the JOBS Act to a viable legislative package – the United State Innovation and Competition Act of 2021 (USICA). There was significant bipartisan support for including JOBS in this package, and revised language was negotiated and approved by the chair and ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP Committee). The JOBS amendment language was included as part of a larger ‘managers package’ of amendments that never made it to a vote. However, having legislative language that the leadership of the HELP Committee agreed to was an incredibly significant development for the JOBS Act.

USICA ultimately passed the Senate without inclusion of the JOBS Act, and then lingered in the House for many months while that chamber focused on trying to pass the president’s “Build Back Better” proposal through the budget reconciliation process. Build Back Better generally focused on large-scale social investments including those in education and skills training.

JOBS Amendment Passes the House

Nearly eight months after the passage of USICA the House decided to move forward with its own version of a competitiveness bill, the America COMPETES Act of 2022. The House COMPETES bill provided another amendment opportunity for the JOBS Act. An amendment was offered by House co-leads Representatives Levin and Gonzalez that was nearly identical to the language that was negotiated for the Senate USICA bill. This time, the JOBS amendment language was married to a version of the College Transparency Act. As a pair the amendment passed the House with a smattering of bipartisan support. [more on the future of the College Transparency Act below] In the meantime, the JOBS Act reached a milestone in the Senate by garnering 50 bipartisan cosponsors.

The Foxx Factor

Once the COMPETES bill passed the House, both chambers began to slowly ‘conference’ USICA and COMPETES. This is a process meant to reconcile the differences in the two bills in order to agree upon one final bipartisan package. An official conference committee of more than 100 members of Congress was assembled in the spring, and negotiations continued behind the scenes among committee member staff throughout the spring and early-summer. There were hundreds of issues that needed to be reconciled before a package could be finalized, including JOBS and the College Transparency Act.

Instead of deciding to move forward with the language that had been agreed to by the HELP committee leadership in the Senate and passed by amendment in the House, Congressional leadership opted to relitigate the JOBS Act language with a goal of getting all the four leads from the House and Senate education committees to agree. While at first there appeared to be rather minor disagreements over a couple of provisions, negotiations snowballed when House Education and Labor Committee Ranking Member, Virginia Foxx (R-NC) objected to a number of quality assurance guardrails built into the JOBS Act, including a provision excluding participation of for-profit institutions. While the negotiations over the JOBS Act language never completely fell apart, ongoing dissent presented an obstacle to having JOBS included in the final competitiveness package.

A Shift in Scope

In early July, Senator Majority Leader Schumer stated a desire to quickly wrap up the negotiations on the competitiveness bill and bring a final package to a vote. Political wrangling over ongoing work on the Democratic reconciliation package complicated efforts in getting Senate Republicans on board with wrapping up the competitiveness bill. In lieu of trying to get agreement on a larger scale USICA/COMPETES, the Senate decided to instead try and move forward with scaled-back bill that would primarily target efforts around building support for domestic production of semiconductors. That proposal was then expanded to include numerous provisions supporting the federal science agencies. The CHIPS-Plus bill which passed in late-July did not include legislative language focused on trade, foreign affairs, or postsecondary education beyond the purview of the science agencies. The bipartisan legislative items not included in CHIPS-Plus (including JOBS) could still be negotiated and voted on as a package in the coming months. However, that path forward may be challenging since many of the most popular bipartisan policies from USICA/COMPETES were already passed in CHIPS-Plus.

What’s next for JOBS

For the remainder of 2022 there are likely only two possible paths forward for the JOBS Act: 1) inclusion in a bill that is comprised of the remnants of un-passed items from USICA/COMPETES; or 2) inclusion in the annual appropriations package. As mentioned, the prospects of a USICA remnants bill are not stellar, but also not impossible. NSC will continue to monitor developments around that effort.

Having JOBS included in a fiscal year 2023 appropriations package could be feasible if a bill emerges. Typically, it is more difficult to pass a year-long appropriations bills in a mid-term election year. Congress could punt on the issue and instead pass a series of short- or longer-term continuing resolutions that freeze funding at existing levels.

It’s common to have changes to federal financial aid eligibility included in an appropriations bill. Many of the eligibility changes made to the Pell Grant program over the past ten years have occurred via language in an appropriations package. However, JOBS Act champions in Congress have not been successful in adding it to appropriations bills in the past several years. It generally requires sign-off by the four leaders of the House and Senate education committees. So, in order for it to move forward in the 2023 package there would still need to be some type of agreement over quality assurance guardrails with Representative Foxx.

Ultimately, Representative Foxx may believe that her negotiating power increases in 2023 with a potential Republican takeover of the House chamber. In reality, the path forward in 2023 and beyond becomes quite murky. The two Republican co-leads of the bill, Senator Portman and Representative Gonzalez are both retiring. Senate HELP Committee leadership is also changing. Senator Burr is retiring and presumably, Senator Murray will move over to the lead democratic slot on the appropriations committee. In terms of seniority, the next chair and ranking member of the HELP committee may be Senator Paul (R-KY) and Senator Sanders (D-VT). It’s reasonable to speculate that common ground may be more difficult to find under that leadership scenario.

Although the current political environment for JOBS isn’t optimal, the good news is that interest in the JOBS Act continues to be remarkably high on Capitol Hill – and that’s mostly due to the thousands of workforce, business, and postsecondary leaders who have weighed in on this issue over the past eight years.

What about the College Transparency Act

The College Transparency Act (CTA) was also part of the House-passed amendment to the COMPETES Act. If passed, CTA would make higher education and workforce outcomes data more comprehensive and transparent so that students, families, policymakers, institutions, and employers have the data they need to know which programs place people in jobs and raise their incomes.

Specifically, CTA would overturn the 2008 ban on creating a federal student unit record system and would enable the Department of Education to establish a secure, privacy protected student-level data network within the National Center for Education Statistics. This would allow for accurate reporting on student enrollment, progress, and outcomes. It also provides data to states and institutions so that they can develop informed and targeted strategies to support student success.

While the CTA enjoys some bipartisan support in the House and Senate, it also faces strong opposition among some key Republican members of congress. Notably, the education leads for the House and Senate, Representative Foxx and Senator Burr were key in implementing the ban in 2008 and do not seem inclined to having it overturned at this juncture. Given this opposition, the CTA did not make it beyond the initial stages of negotiations for the competitiveness package. It also seems unlikely it could move forward in a near-term appropriations package.

This does not mean that passage of the CTA is off the table in 2023 and beyond. It has staunch support from the Chamber of Commerce and many in the business community, as well as most higher education stakeholders. It also was under active consideration during the pre-pandemic negotiations to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. Under the right set of circumstances, the bill could certainly advance, and NSC continues to advocate for the CTA to be on the forefront of discussions on postsecondary reform.

NSC will continue to advocate for JOBS and CTA during the remainder of 2022, as we consider what might be next for both pieces of legislation in 2023. And we will continue to call on our network for targeted advocacy opportunities when they will have the most impact. If you have not yet signed our Making College Work Petition – now is the time! We are almost at a milestone 1500 signatures.