Expanding grants to short-term programs would pay big dividends.

February 22, 2018

WILL REPUBLICANS AND Democrats ever come together again to solve America's big problems?

Headlines and Twitter dialogue sometimes make it seem hopeless, but I'm seeing rays of bipartisan sunshine on a big, looming challenge for our nation: changing our approach to higher education to improve our workers' skills.

Late last year, Republican leaders in the House introduced a bill – the Prosper Act – to reauthorize the Higher Education Act. The bill included an innovative, bipartisan idea which could open the doors of college to millions of workers who are struggling to keep pace with the changing skill needs of modernizing industries: to make Pell Grants available to lower-wage workers who cannot pursue a full-time college degree, but who would welcome the chance to enroll in short-term community college programs that lead to industry certifications in high-paying fields like welding, advanced manufacturing, health care, and coding.

To understand how this could be a game-changer for 21st century higher education, one needs to first acknowledge how different our economy is today from the 1960s when Lyndon Johnson first signed the Higher Education Act into law. Most of today's college students aren't traditional high school graduates going to college full time in pursuit of a four-year degree. More than 40 percentof today's college students are over the age of 25, and nearly 20 percent have children of their own. They are working full time and raising kids while taking classes – some toward a degree, but many toward some other credential that will get them a better job, higher wages or greater job security in workplaces that are being radically transformed by changing technology.

To get a job in a factory 50 years ago, you didn't need to think about college. You needed a high school degree and strong shoulders. Today, you'll probably need some knowledge of advanced mathematics, how to key information into a computer or "lean" manufacturing techniques. Unfortunately, if your company isn't ready to pay for you to go back to school, the only way you'll get those skills is to pay out of your own pocket. The federal government isn't going to give you any help because you don't fit the "1960s college student" profile.

Meanwhile, 45 percent of small businesses in America are unable to find qualified job applicants to fill job openings, particularly those "middle skill" jobs that require specific technical skills that can be accessed through just a few courses. Shorter-term certification programs can lead to higher wages for workers and help employers fill job openings. But not with the help of the federal government – possibly until now, that is.

The Trump administration recently made "expanding Pell Grant eligibility for short term programs" a top higher education priority in its "HEA reauthorization principles." The administration's philosophy closely mirrors that of the Jobs Act, a bipartisan Senate Bill that would expand Pell championed by none other than Hillary Clinton's running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va. The idea is supported by politicians ranging from Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, D-N.Y., to Sen. Rob Portman, R-Ohio, an original co-sponsor of the Jobs Act.

Don't look now, but Washington has reached a rare point of agreement on an issue that could impact millions of Americans. If "workforce Pell" were signed into law, it would help hard-working Americans excluded from our college campuses quickly access the skills they need to compete in today's economy, and it would give businesses in every locale access to a pipeline of trained, skilled employees. Workers at manufacturing plants would not have to worry about robots coming for their jobs; those workers could acquire the skills needed to be the masters of their machines.

The only thing standing between U.S workers and that brighter future is a rapidly closing window of bi-partisan collaboration on this key higher education reform. Let's hope the Senate will pick up where the House left off to put an even stronger "workforce Pell" proposal on the president's desk.