Senate adds short-term Pell expansion to Innovation and Competition Act

by Joseph K. Clark

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Competition Act

Lawmakers on several occasions have drafted bills to make programs shorter than 15 weeks eligible for Pell Grants, arguing that doing so would help students pay for training in high-demand fields.

The most recent proposal is an amendment to the Senate’s U.S. Innovation and Competition Act. It is similar to the bipartisan JOBS Act, spearheaded by Sens. Tim Kaine and Rob Portman, a Democrat and Republican, respectively. The two senators also put forth the new amendment.

The proposal contains safeguards to ensure Pell Grants wouldn’t be used for programs with poor student outcomes. Institutions have to show, for instance, that graduates of short-term programs receive a median 20% increase in earnings after finishing them.

Colleges also have to disclose completion rates and earnings to prospective students before they enroll in the programs and publish the data “prominently” on their websites.

Only programs offered by nonprofit and public colleges would be eligible. The amendment excludes explicitly for-profit institutions, some of which have come under fire for having programs with poor student outcomes.

The education secretary must approve the programs and has 120 days to do so.  The American Association of Community Colleges recently said the legislation would be “a major victory” for two-year schools and students who need financial help to pursue short-term programs. The National Skills Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to expanding worker training, has also supported similar measures.

Yet detractors of the concept say short-term programs may not improve graduates’ wages and social mobility.  A recent analysis of such programs in Washington state by left-leaning think tank New America found that about three-fourths of students who started a program completed it. On average, nearly all of the program graduates made enough to support a single-adult household, the organization found. Only completers from one type of program, marine science, made enough to support themselves and a family.

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