Short-Term Pell Grants Gain Momentum In Congress

A revamped version of a bill to allow Pell Grants to be used on two-month credential programs may gain traction this year.
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  • Expanding the use of Pell Grants to short-term work credential programs has seen bipartisan support in the past.
  • The latest attempt passed the House of Representatives but failed in the Senate.
  • However, some student advocate groups are concerned about the lack of data surrounding these programs.
  • A new Republican-sponsored bill aims to combat these concerns with new oversight rules, including an earnings threshold.

Alternative pathways to earning a credential may soon become more affordable for low- and middle-income students.

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have made quick work to seemingly rally around the same issue: extending Pell Grants to cover short-term credential programs. However, Democrats and Republicans have slightly different ideas on expanding Pell Grants. And it's unclear whether they'll be able to work together to finally pass this bipartisan initiative.

The fact that members from both parties agree that Pell Grants should be extended to cover these programs could, however, be a good sign.

The Pell Grant program is the federal government's most extensive needs-based grant program for higher education students. It helps approximately 7 million students each year attend college for a degree or credential program lasting at least 15 weeks.

Expanding Pell Grants to cover short-term workforce training would allow students to use the grants on certificates with as little as eight weeks of instruction.

Senators Trot Out a Familiar Bill

U.S. Sens. Tim Kaine, a Democrat representing Virginia, and Mike Braun, a Republican representing Indiana, introduced the Jumpstarting Our Businesses by Supporting Students (JOBS) Act on Jan. 31.

If that title sounds familiar, it's because this bill has cropped up in the past.

Most recently, lawmakers in early 2022 added a version of the JOBS Act to the sweeping America Creating Opportunities to Meaningfully Promote Excellence in Technology, Education, and Science (COMPETES) Act. That bill later became the Creating Helpful Incentives to Produce Semiconductors and Science (CHIPS) Act of 2022. But Pell Grant expansion failed to survive the U.S. Senate after passing in the U.S. House of Representatives.

It's not the first, second, third, or fourth time the JOBS Act has failed in Congress.

U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a Democrat, first introduced the bill in February 2014.

It has been reintroduced, and failed, in every successive Congress. Advocates BestColleges spoke with in late 2022 thought it had a chance to pass during the lame-duck session in December, but it did not.

The House Tries a New Approach

Republican leaders in the House of Representatives introduced the Promoting Employment and Lifelong Learning (PELL) Act on Jan. 25, a new take on short-term Pell.

Bill sponsors include House Republican Conference Chair Elise Stefanik of New York and Education and the Workforce Committee Chairwoman Virginia Foxx of North Carolina.

Like the JOBS Act, this new bill expands the use of Pell Grants to cover job training programs running 8-15 weeks. However, unlike the other bill, the PELL Act would add some oversight to ensure these grants aren't used on programs that don't lead to higher earnings among graduates.

Those standards include:

  • A 70% completion rate within 150% of the normal time of completion
  • A 70% job placement rate
  • The value of the program is greater than published tuition and fees

The bill sets a formula of "Value - Added Earnings / Published Tuition and Fees" to calculate the last point.

The PELL Act would also add data on these short-term credential programs to the College Scorecard for transparency. Data would include:

  • Completion rate
  • Job placement rate 180 days after completion
  • Published tuition and fees
  • Earnings
  • Length of the program
  • Number of students enrolled
  • Percentage of students who have completed
  • Percentage of completers whose median earnings exceed 150% of the federal poverty line three years after completing

Support Builds Across Sectors

The business community is seemingly itching to get short-term Pell across the finish line.

The Skills First Coalition, a group of U.S. businesses including IBM and Boeing, penned a letter to congressional leaders on Jan. 25. One of the group's main priorities for 2023 is to promote multiple pathways to employment. Expanding Pell Grants to cover "shorter-term, quality workforce-related education and training programs" is included in the coalition's letter.

"As the U.S. workplace and our labor force undergo significant transformation, our higher education and workforce development systems must meet the demands of today's digital market and shift away from the traditional 'one-size-fits-all model,'" the letter stated.

Meanwhile, there may be some willingness for bipartisan collaboration.

U.S. Rep. Foxx recently told Politico that as chair of the Education and the Workforce Committee, expanding Pell Grants is an initiative she believes representatives can tackle with bipartisan support.

"Moving forward, we need to enforce things we were doing before," she told Politico. "We'd like to have short-term Pell Grants; that's one thing you're seeing. Everybody's talking about short-term Pell; even Democrats care about short-term Pell. So that's one thing."