Outdated Pell rules may discriminate against low-income students

February 16, 2016

John Davis had been working as a shelf-stocker at his local grocery store in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for more than a decade when he realized there was no way he would be able to help his ailing mother on his salary.

Her degenerative spine condition, combined with diabetes and cancer, was making it more and more difficult for her to get to her job as a paralegal.

“My mother’s health is declining,” said Davis, 31, “so I knew I needed to find a way to pay the bills for her instead of her having to work.”

He could have gotten a federal Pell grant to go to college, but even an associate’s degree takes two years to complete, with no guarantee of a good job waiting at the end. He had done well in science courses in high school, so a certification program at Baton Rouge Community College that would train him to be a plant inspector — a position in high demand — seemed like a good fit.

The problem: Davis couldn’t use Pell money to cover the $3,500 tuition, because the certification program doesn’t require the 600 hours of class time needed to qualify for Pell.

As President Obama pushes to expand Pell grant coverage for year-round classes to help students complete degrees more quickly, an unusual collection of conservative, liberal, union and business leaders is asking why short-term educational programs that lead to decent-paying jobs aren’t included in the expansion. The Manufacturing Institute recently estimated that there are as many as 600,000 middle-skilled jobs in manufacturing currently unfilled because of a lack of trained workers — with training available from short-term programs.

Meanwhile, at the traditional four-year and two-year colleges that the Pell program does cover, enrollment declined and graduation rates dropped last year. It has become clear that by 2020 the majority of jobs will require a post-secondary degree, and these shorter-term education programs could prepare people for some of those jobs.


The Manufacturing Institute's recent estimates of middle-skilled jobs in manufacturing that are currently unfilled because of a lack of trained workers — although training is available from short-term programs not covered by Pell

Administrators at Baton Rouge Community College say Pell funding rules have created a somewhat perverse incentive. Some students enroll in two-year general studies programs — for which they can get scholarship help — rather than in unsupported programs more likely to set them on a career path.

“It’s a significant problem in Baton Rouge. You have your impoverished communities, rural and urban, trying to get access to career pathways to get themselves out of the situation,” said Girard Melancon, executive director of workforce education at BRCC. “A lot of time they go into general studies because Pell covers it, but it may not be the best fit, or the best use of time.”

In John Davis’ case, his younger brother scraped together the tuition money, and Davis enrolled last September in the inspector/nondestructive testing program, going to class from 7:30 a.m. until 2:30 p.m. every day, then running to his grocery job where he worked from 3 p.m. until 7 p.m., plus full days on the weekends. On February 4, he graduated from the program; on February 15, he started working at a nearby Exxon Mobil plant. His pay jumped from $10.75 an hour to about $19 an hour.

“On my [old] salary, with the bills I have to pay, there would have been no way to save up for the course,” said Davis. “It’s an opportunity people should have, if they’re willing to put in the effort.”

When Pell was established in 1972, it was intended to allow low-income students to go to college, which typically meant getting a bachelor’s degree. Training for “middle-skilled” jobs was often done in vocational high schools, at apprenticeships, through unions or simply on the job. Now employers want to hire people who are already trained, and the jobs actually require more learned skills, such as using new technologies.

Many of the women in a bookkeeping course at Norwalk Community College hope to use the credential to get a better job, but they must pay full tuition because federal aid doesn’t cover the course. Photo: Meredith Kolodner

Yet some people caution that providing federal financial aid for such short-term vocational programs could draw low-income students away from four-year degrees, leaving higher education even further stratified.

Getting through college is especially difficult for young, low-income students. While 77 percent of upper-income studentsearn a bachelor’s degree by the time they are 24 years old (up from 40 percent in 1970), the same is true of only 9 percent of young people from low-income families. Nationally, only 39 percent of community college students get any degree within six years of enrolling at a school.

In many ways, students with certifications don’t have much stronger academic backgrounds than those who simply graduated from high school, according to a study. But on average, their wages are 20 percent higher than students with only a high school degree, and the jump is even larger for many Latinos and for African-American males.

“People are asking the question, ‘Is college for everyone?’ As long as the question is being asked across the board and not just in our poorer communities, then it can really expand people’s choices.”

Kristina Testa-Buzzee, interim associate dean of extended studies and workforce development at Norwalk Community College

Melancon says the majority of people who show interest in his college’s certification programs are people in their 20s who never went to college. Many have small children and can’t afford it.

“They can’t pay for it out of pocket and sometimes they just get lost in the shuffle,” he said.

Most of the jobs that students get after they complete the plant inspector/nondestructive testing program that Davis took start at around $20 an hour, Melancon noted. By contrast, the HVAC program, which is Pell-eligible, usually results in a job paying only $15-$17 an hour. And the inspector positions are in high demand and have a career pathway that can lead to even better wages.

Other education training programs that don’t qualify for Pell at most community colleges include emergency medical technician (average salary of about $35,000) and dental assistant (about $36,000).

“I don’t see how we’re doing anybody any favors by encouraging them to go into four-year programs where they take remedial classes and leave with debt and regret,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a center-right education policy think tank.

Petrilli, like the (usually) federal-funding-wary Heritage Foundation, supports extending Pell to short-term educational programs that link to in-demand jobs.

The federal government is not unaware of the problems. In 2011, officials launched a pilot program allowing colleges to use Pell money for some short-term programs linked to jobs that local employers were having trouble filling. Currently more than 40 colleges are participating.

Related: Fewer than one in seven community college students transfer and get a bachelors degree – but there is new hope

“We’re still gathering information based on what we’re seeing in the [pilot program],” said Yuanxia Ding, a senior policy advisor in the U.S. Department of Education. “We’re really thinking about student outcomes and what students need coming out of post-secondary education. Many of the goals of short-term training are also reflected in a new experiment” called EQUIP.

“I’m very conscious and concerned about having upwardly mobile career pathways for low-income students. We live in a very highly stratified world, especially in higher education.”

David Levinson, president of Norwalk Community College

Launched last fall, EQUIP (Educational Quality through Innovative Partnerships) allows community colleges to use Pell money for training programs administered by nontraditional groups, such as computer coding “boot camps.” But the programs it covers are required to have at least 450 hours of class time, which would still leave many training programs without aid.

According to Steve Long, associate vice chancellor at St. Louis Community College, which is applying for one of the EQUIP grants, the coding “boot camps” generally cost between $3,500 and $5,000 and can lead to jobs with starting salaries of $50,000.

A 2012 study found that men with certifications in computer and information services earned more than $72,000 a year — a higher salary than 54 percent of men with bachelor’s degrees earned at that time.

“Pell was designed in a time when everyone was going to go to a four-year college,” said Long. “There are coding jobs available that don’t need four-year computer science degrees.”

Like many community college administrators, Long believes that the simplicity of Pell funding would alleviate stress and red tape. These colleges often spend a significant amount of time scrambling to bring down the costs of the training programs by applying for local, state, federal and private grants, sometimes all at once.

One easy solution might be to add the extra 100 or 200 hours that would allow the programs to qualify for Pell grants. But community college administrators say it would be unethical to pad their courses and create more work for students, just to get federal aid.

Related: Stop saying “college isn’t for everyone”

“That’s why some of the for-profit schools got in trouble,” said Long, referring to schools that have been sued or penalized for taking money from Pell-funded students for courses that, whatever the number of hours, did not teach the skills promised.

Even worthy short-term programs and “boot camps,” however, raise thorny questions of whether something will be lost if they replace four-year college degrees and whether they will be disproportionately filled with low-income and first-generation students.

“I’m very conscious and concerned about having upwardly mobile career pathways for low-income students,” said David Levinson, president of Norwalk Community College. “We live in a very highly stratified world, especially in higher education.”

Still, while Levinson sees the dangers, he believes the tradeoffs of getting Pell eligibility for short-term programs are worth it. The key, he says, is making sure low-income students have a choice of options in practice, and not just rhetorically. He also believes the certifications should not be linked to one brand or company (for example computer coding only for Microsoft), and that certifications should be able to be stacked and lead upward.

It isn’t rare to meet students who want to get a workforce certification but “can’t afford to take these classes,” said Kristina Testa-Buzzee, interim associate dean of extended studies and workforce development at Norwalk Community College. She sees programs that lead to certifications as phlebotomists or bookkeepers as both a gateway to further education and also as an “end point” if they fully meet the student’s needs.

“People are asking the question, ‘Is college for everyone?’” said Testa-Buzzee. “As long as the question is being asked across the board and not just in our poorer communities, then it can really expand people’s choices.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about higher education.