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Guardrails for opening up Pell Grants to short-term programs

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Guardrails for short-term Pell and the exclusion of online programs. Also, tech-training explainers and challenges that could sink employer-driven education and training programs. (Sign up here to get this newsletter.)


Quality and Short-Term Programs

The latest Congressional push to open up Pell Grants to short-term programs faces an uphill slog. But it probably won’t be the last attempt.

The U.S. House of Representatives passed an amendment last month that would allow students who enroll in some programs that can be completed in 8-12 weeks to be eligible for Pell Grants. The amendment was attached to a $350B bill to boost manufacturing and research. But the Senate passed a substantially different version of the huge competition bill, and Congress is focused elsewhere for now.

The amendment excludes for-profit colleges from short-term Pell eligibility, a long-time priority for Democrats. More surprisingly, however, House Democrats also nixed online programs. Some experts and nonprofit college administrators have criticized that move.

Excluding online programs won’t solve the quality issue and could restrict access for students who lack reliable transportation or consistent schedules, James Dean Ward, a senior researcher at Ithaka S+R, argues in an opinion piece for Work Shift. Limiting options for vulnerable students based on delivery modes “is short-sighted and counterproductive,” he writes.

Next Steps: Short-term Pell has bipartisan support—24 Republicans voted for the amendment in a hyper-polarized Congress. And even if Republicans take the House this fall, there’s a good chance some form of short-term Pell proposal will be resuscitated. But it’s virtually certain that a Republican-led Congress would not exclude for-profit or online programs.

So what are effective quality checks that could get enough bipartisan support to be included in a Pell expansion bill Congress might pass?

  • A funding cap for institutions. The Community College Research Center at Columbia University’s Teachers College says Congress should set a tight ceiling on the use of Pell funds for short-term programs at each college, at least until more data are available on the value of these credentials.
  • Connections to degrees or credits. Colleges should be required to map out how short-term programs align to available career pathways, CCRC argues, while also creating a mechanism for converting short-term courses into credits.
  • Completion and job placement thresholds. In a policy playbook designed for state lawmakers considering job-training programs, America Achieves suggests setting minimum graduation and job placement rates of 70 percent—outcomes-based requirements that perhaps could apply to short-term Pell.
  • Wraparound supports. Both groups said quality programs should give students access to advising and other forms of support that many noncredit programs do not provide. But it’s not clear if the federal government could require student access to those services for program eligibility.

Likewise, several experts said only accredited institutions that are eligible for federal aid should be able to receive short-term Pell funds.

Are these good ideas? What’s missing from this list? Let me know.

Work Shift Explainers: Tech Pathways

Over at Work Shift, we’ve been exploring new and growing pathways into good tech jobs with a series of explainers. So far we’ve tackled tech apprenticeships—which grew more than 41 percent in the past year—and the evolution of computer science degrees. In coming weeks, we’ll look at on-ramps and bootcamps, as well as employer-based training.

Each deep dive answers critical questions about how the models work, what’s changing, who pays and who benefits, and what the payoffs are for learners and employers.

Why does this matter now? Just about every industry is heavy on tech these days—finance, retail, healthcare, manufacturing, and of course, tech itself—and companies have huge hiring needs. The tech industry also has an equity and diversity problem that hampers both corporate competitiveness and individual opportunity.

People have been chipping away at the problem for years, but the pandemic and the racial reckoning of the past two years seem to have created more of an appetite for change. And a barrage of education and training announcements have come from major companies like Amazon, Intel, and Google in recent weeks.

“What we’ve learned over the past five years is what can be accomplished when private-sector companies like ours come together with public-sector institutions and nonprofit partners,” says Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google and Alphabet.

The big picture can get lost in the details, so we’re taking a step back. Click on over to Work Shift to do the same.

Overview: The reboot in tech training
Overview: The reboot in tech training Many of the jobs in the new tech economy are still being filled like they were in the 1990s. But that’s starting to change.

Apprenticeships grow into tech
Apprenticeships grow into tech The pandemic and racial reckoning have boosted interest in tech apprenticeships. We take a look at how the model works, who pays and who benefits, and the ROI for learners and employers.

A new language for CS degrees
A new language for CS degrees Degree programs are a tried-and-true path into the top jobs in tech, but many learners get lost along the way. Now, programs are evolving to rethink what it means to work, learn, and make it in tech.

A Crisis of Opportunity
A Crisis of Opportunity Using state-level data to show the strong relationships between human capital, social capital, and well-being, this report—from the ETS Center for Research on Human Capital—provides a deeper understanding of how opportunity plays out across the 50 states. Learn more here.

More from Work Shift

Opinion: Excluding online programs from Pell expansion won’t solve the quality issueExcluding online programs from short-term Pell won’t keep low-quality programs out—but it will restrict access for students, writes James Dean Ward of Ithaka S+R. We need more accurate measures of quality.

Why Achieving the Dream will expand focus to economic mobility
Why Achieving the Dream will expand focus to economic mobility Community college nonprofit that was one of the pioneers of the student success movement is now shifting its focus to include social and economic mobility. We talked with the group’s CEO about why.

Conferencing in Austin

It was good to see many of you at SXSW EDU this week. Among the themes I heard at the conference were three big questions experts said could make or break new high-profile education and training programs that have emerged in recent months:

  • Do working learners have enough time to pursue credentials, even short-term ones?
  • Can talent-sourcing intermediary groups recruit enough students for company-driven education programs?
  • Are employers desperate enough about hiring and retaining workers to really step up with enough commitment and money?

Open Tabs

Transactional Education

“If you are a decent student, you will not have to worry about getting a job, no matter what campus you’re at,” Howard Gardner, a professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said in an interview with Inside Higher Ed. In a new book, Gardner and his co-author argue that higher education has become a largely “transactional” endeavor that focuses too much on jobs.

Training Grants

The U.S. Department of Labor announced $45M in funding for community colleges to better address equity gaps and to meet the skills gap needs of employers and workers. The new money for the Strengthening Community Colleges Training Grants program follows a previous $40M round of funding. Individual colleges will be eligible for grants of up to $1.6M, with up to $5M for consortiums.

Gainful Employment

The U.S. Department of Education released a new draft gainful employment rule aimed at for-profit and nondegree college programs. It includes measures that compare graduates’ earnings to their debt amounts and to the earnings of high school graduates, Natalie Schwartz of Higher Ed Dive reported. The department will decide on the rule after a negotiated rulemaking session concludes.

Employer Funding

A global survey of working adults found that 61 percent would pursue a professional certificate in the next year if the program was fully funded by their employer. Employer funding trumped all other decision factors, according to a new report from Chegg on its 2021 student survey, including which institution administers a program, or the qualifications it offers.

Credential ROI

Most master’s degree programs in computer science, engineering, and nursing have a net ROI of more than $500K, according to an analysis of 14K graduate programs conducted by Preston Cooper, a research fellow at the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity. Yet about 40 percent of master’s programs do not show a positive return, and that proportion increases when adjusting for non-completion and underlying costs.

More than 90 percent of workers who completed AWS training or earned an AWS certification reported a positive ROI, according to the results of a survey of 1K learners conducted by the Enterprise Strategy Group and commissioned by AWS. More than 80 percent of respondents reported additional job security and productivity, as well as improved skills.

Thanks for reading a somewhat skinnier edition. The newsletter will be back next week. @paulfain

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