A look at the earnings threshold in the new short-term Pell proposal from House Republicans. Also, survey data on job changers and online training, and a digital learning collaboration between Arizona State University and the U of Tennessee at Knoxville.

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A weekly newsletter about the intersection of education and work. By Paul Fain

Earnings for Short-Term Training

The new Republican majority in the U.S. House of Representatives didn’t wait long to introduce a bill that would open up Pell Grants to short-term college programs.

As with previous proposals from both sides of the aisle, the Promoting Employment and Lifelong Learning (PELL) Act, which Republican leaders unveiled last week, would make credential programs that can be completed in as little as two months eligible for the federal grants.

The bill includes quality-control measures, including requirements for completion and job-placement rates of 70%, and an earnings test for graduates.

The wage-threshold concept for short-term programs is a new one. It builds on a bare-bones version House Republicans included in a broader bill last year, which would have required that the median earnings gain of graduates two years after completion were more than the program’s tuition and fees.

To ensure a positive return on investment for students and taxpayers, the new earnings test would require that tuition for a program does not top the “value-added earnings boost the credential provides in the labor market,” according to a summary from the newly renamed Education and Workforce Committee. (Few sources had seen the bill’s full text early this week.)

The wage bump would be calculated by finding the difference between the median earnings of program graduates who received federal aid and 150% of the federal poverty line for a single individual — currently $21,870. Earnings would be measured three years after completion and adjusted for geographic differences using a federal price parity index.

For example, if the median wage for a program graduate is $33K, the value-added earnings threshold would be a little over $11K. So tuition rates that fall under that amount would pass the test.

Senator Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat, this week reintroduced the bipartisan JOBS Act, another take on short-term or so-called Workforce Pell. The unchanged proposal does not include an earnings requirement.

What’s Next? Several sources applauded the House Republicans for trying to develop an ROI measure. Some said the new bill signals a willingness among the Republican leadership to negotiate with Democrats and the Senate on their short-term Pell proposals.

“I appreciate any effort to bring additional guardrails,” says Kyle Southern, associate vice president at the Institute for College Access & Success.

Even so, a consensus among several backers of Workforce Pell held that the wage test would be tricky to enact. Several experts said they had questions for the House committee about how the standard would work.

Collecting the earnings data could be difficult. The data currently does not exist at the federal level, outside of some self-reported survey information. Several states have been gathering wage information on their short-term programs, but not in uniform ways. Sources also say setting median earnings at a specific point in time — three years after completion — also could be tough and is a long time in the future for credentials students can earn so quickly.

The bill would allow the U.S. Department of Education to grant provisional eligibility to training providers that have not been federal aid–eligible in the past. To qualify, those providers would need to submit their own “alternate earnings data.” While the bill calls for that information to be statistically rigorous and comparable, some experts worry that the proposal’s language is too vague to work in practice.

Southern says efforts to require that the feds collect student-level data, such as through the College Transparency Act, would be a big help in getting a short-term Pell ROI metric right.

“If you’re going to open the floodgates with Pell, the CTA would go a long way toward creating robust data systems,” he says.

Predicting what will happen in this Congress is difficult if not impossible. But several sources think some version of short-term Pell has a chance.

The latest proposals from the House and Senate are further evidence of the urgency to create the sort of education and training opportunities both students and employers increasingly want, says Katie Spiker, managing director of government affairs at the National Skills Coalition.

“It has become a top priority across the political spectrum,” Spiker says.

Representative Virginia Foxx, the North Carolina Republican who is back for another stint leading the education committee, cited the proposal in an interview last week with Politico. “Everybody’s talking about short-term Pell,” she said. “Even Democrats care about short-term Pell.”

A coalition including several companies (Boeing, IBM, and HP), the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Western Governors University, Cengage, EdAssist, and the retail and semiconductor industry associations listed short-term Pell as a top priority in a letter last week to Congress. Yet resistance remains strong among left-leaning advocacy groups.

The shifting politics around credentialism could help a Workforce Pell bill get over the finish line, some predict, if it can be the rare higher ed issue to avoid getting sucked into the culture wars. But whether or not for-profit college programs should be eligible will continue to be a serious sticking point.

Last year, the Democratic-led House passed a short-term Pell amendment to an economic competitiveness package that would have nixed eligibility for all online programs as well as for-profits. That amendment didn’t make it into the final CHIPS legislation.

David Baime, the American Association of Community Colleges’ senior vice president for government relations, says the association is pleased that Foxx and other Republicans are advancing a proposal to support the workforce and short-term programs.

The Kicker: “We know the committee is open to refining the language,” says Baime. “And we’re eager to work with them on that.”

Online Training and Job Changers

Roughly 47M Americans, nearly a quarter of the total U.S. workforce, quit their jobs during 2021. As companies sought to retain or attract workers, many added education benefits and dropped degree requirements.

The Cengage Group, a large ed-tech company, checked in with 1,200 of the Great Resigners — Americans who quit their job and found a new one during the 12 months after June 2021.

Two-thirds of respondents (66%) said access to employer-paid online training and upskilling was an important factor in accepting their current job, the survey found. And 56% said their previous employers did not offer these opportunities.

Among respondents, 67% took an online training course to help land a new job — including 77% of tech workers. These workers typically reported participating in short-term training, with 62% completing their online course or training in less than three months.

With so many short-term training options available, it’s hard for learners to discern which one will provide a good ROI, says Rya Conrad-Bradshaw, vice president of corporate markets at Cengage Work. But it can help to look for a direct connection between the program and the employer, to ensure training is valued.

“Is there a credential or a certificate associated with the program that a target employer will recognize?” she says. “Does the training have a clear focus on skills that are transferable and directly apply to the role they’re moving toward?”

Workforce-aligned credentials increasingly can pay off as alternatives to degrees, says Conrad-Bradshaw.

“There are faster, skill-based solutions that ensure results and are preferable to learners because they show short-term ROI,” she says. “However, it shouldn’t have to be a trade-off, as many of these shorter courses can map to a degree.”

Consolidation in Online Learning

Last week I reported on the potential sale of the University of Phoenix to a nonprofit affiliated with the University of Arkansas System.

In another possible sign of consolidation in the online education market, and of big public institutions trying to better break into that space, I subsequently heard about a collaboration between Arizona State University and the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.

ASU’s EdPlus focuses on the design and delivery at scale of digital learning models that boost student success. It oversees the operational management of the university’s online programs, according to a statement from an ASU spokeswoman, while also working on strategic design, user experience, public and private partnerships, and ed tech.

“EdPlus regularly meets with institutions across the country to discuss the expansion and best practices for digital teaching and learning models,” she said. “Our work with UT Knoxville is centered around that — advising the university on best practices in digital teaching and learning.”

Open Tabs

Degree Inflation

Bipartisan moves by governors to drop four-year degree requirements for state government jobs is part of a “degree reset” to make the American workforce more inclusive, The New York Times says in a staff editorial. “Expanding the terms for who can get hired is a change that would reverberate far beyond individual jobs and job seekers. It would bring a greater degree of openness and fairness into the labor market.”

College Enrollments

Undergraduate U.S. enrollment was essentially flat this fall, dropping only 0.6%, according to final numbers from the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center. That is a somewhat smaller decline than earlier estimates. Latino enrollment was up 1.6%, while enrollment among white and Black undergrads continued to slide (down 3.6% and 1.9%, respectively). Enrollment among adults 24 and older was down 4.2%, while younger students ticked up (0.7%).

Gender Gap

Major corporations have made some progress on women’s representation in leadership and the talent pipeline in the past year, according to Bloomberg’s Gender Equality Index. Among roughly 500 surveyed companies, 64% had set diversity and inclusion goals for managers, up eight points from last year. But big gender gaps persist, with women making up 50% of entry-level workers but only 38% of midlevel managers and 24% of executives.

Online Learning

The University of Texas at Austin is partnering with edX on an online master’s degree in artificial intelligence it plans to begin offering next year. The program will feature tuition of $10K and is designed to educate working professionals across a wide variety of industries. The university and edX currently offer other “disruptively priced” online master’s degrees in computer science, data science, and nutritional sciences.

Education Benefits

Nearly 75K U.S. employees of McDonald’s have received $164M in tuition assistance through the Archways to Opportunity program the company created in 2015, according to a brief by Haley Glover, director of UpSkill America at the Aspen Institute. The report also includes updates on Amazon’s Career Choice and Metro College from UPS, where 10K workers have earned more than 13K degrees and certifications.

The KFC Foundation will fully cover tuition fees for all eligible KFC restaurant employees to attend Western Governors University, the foundation announced. The education benefit is available to employees on their first day. Participating employees also can receive up to $20K in grants to attend the college or university of their choice.

Job Moves

Jacob Fraire is the next president of the ECMC Foundation, the ECMC Group said this week. Fraire is currently director of policy and strategy for the Diana Natalicio Institute at the University of Texas at El Paso. He previously led the Texas Association of Community Colleges. Fraire will replace Peter Taylor, who has led the foundation since 2014.

Thanks for reading. Let me know what I missed? Reach me directly at pfain.highered@gmail.com.

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— Paul Fain

A veteran higher education journalist and analyst, Paul focuses on the connections between education and the American workforce.