NSC calls for the modernization of the federal Pell grant program in new publication

By Katie Brown, March 06, 2018

In an economy where more than 80 percent of all jobs require education or training beyond high school and 50 percent of jobs can be classified as “middle-skill”—meaning they require more than a high school diploma but not a four-year degree—the demand for high-quality, short-term credentials is greater than ever.

Due to this growing trend, more and more individuals are enrolling in postsecondary education with a different set of objectives than first-time, full-time students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. In fact, an increasing number of students are pursuing higher education while balancing work and family obligations for the explicit purpose of finding success in the labor market. For these reasons, credentials achieved through short-term programs—which can include industry-recognized credentials or certifications, licenses and certificates—make up 24 percent of all postsecondary awards in the U.S. today.

Despite the growing utility of certificates for both individuals and employers in need of skilled workers, students who choose to enroll in short-term programs are typically ineligible for federal financial aid. Current law stipulates that students can only receive a federal Pell grant if they enroll in a program of study that is at least 600 clock hours of instruction over fifteen weeks and results in the attainment of academic credit. Because of this policy, students who wish to enroll in a short-term or noncredit program must either pay out of pocket to cover their costs or commit to an academic program that meets the Pell grant length requirements—even if it will not lead them to success in their chosen field.

In a new publication, National Skills Coalition calls for the modernization of our federal financial aid system so that it can truly meet the needs of today’s students and employers. The paper makes the case for this policy change by laying out the evolution of the postsecondary landscape, highlighting favorable outcomes of short-term programs, underscoring the role of sector partnerships in bridging the existing financial aid gap and highlighting the efforts of two states—Iowa and Virginia—to enroll students in programs that will lead to jobs in in-demand industries.

The publication culminates in a set of policy recommendations for extending Pell grant eligibility to high-quality, short-term programs that are at least 150 clock hours of instruction over 8 weeks, so long as they meet a set of quality assurance provisions. These provisions include: requiring eligible programs to lead to a credential that aligns with local or regional demand and has been verified by employers; mandating that eligible programs are approved by a state educational agency or similar entity and encouraging institutions to articulate short-term credentials with longer-term career pathways. It also proposes the adoption of a Community College Compact—a federal policy that would better support community and technical colleges as they work to equip students with the skills they need to succeed.

NSC’s new publication is consistent with the proposals highlighted in our Skills for Good Jobs Agenda—which was released in 2016 and updated earlier this year.