An amendment added to the JOBS Act passed in the Senate last year is sparking debate among legislators and proponents of online post-secondary education.
The JOBS (Jumpstart our Businesses by Supporting Students) Act expands the Pell Grant program to include short-term post-secondary courses. Pell Grants are government subsidies that help students in financial need pay for their post-secondary education. Unlike loans, Pell Grants do not have to be repaid.
“The key to ensuring young Americans transition seamlessly into good-paying careers is to make sure that high-quality education and job training is affordable and accessible,” Representative Andy Levin, a Michigan Democrat and the JOB Act’s sponsor, said in a statement. “Pell Grants — not short-term education loan programs —have helped millions of Americans earn a better education and find a better job.”
The bill would close the ‘skills gap’ by expanding Pell Grant eligibility for high-quality, short-term skills and job training programs that lead to industry-based credentials and ultimately employment in high-wage, high-skill industry sectors or careers.
A 2021 study conducted by the Institute of Educational Sciences determined that offering Pell Grants for very short-term occupational training programs increased program enrollment and completion by about ten percentage points. The study was based on a pilot program of two experimental expansions to Pell Grant eligibility that took place in 2011.
The bill passed last year in the Senate did not specify whether online post-secondary courses would qualify under the expanded program. After the bill was moved to the House of Representatives for consideration, legislators added language to the bill attempting to clarify the issue.
The version of the bill passed by the House on February 4 states that short-term programs would be Pell-Grant-eligible if they meet the requirements, including “at least 150 clock hours of instruction time for at least eight weeks,” as long as it is not primarily delivered online.
Critics from community colleges feel the language is unfair since many short-term online programs have been created within the curriculum in response to the pandemic.
Russell Poulin, Executive Director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, told Insidehightered.com he was alarmed by the exclusion of online education.
“It is very disturbing that they would make such a blanket exclusion of distance education,” Poulin said. He noted that there were many high-quality, short-term online programs available through community colleges. He believes the legislation should be based on program results, not modality.
“Skeptics on these programs are essentially just worried about throwing federal money at low-quality programs,” Kevin Miller, associate director for higher education at the Bipartisan Policy Center, told Insidehighered.com. “There is a lot of caution about trying to build this expansion in a way that is not likely to end up with wasted money.”
Cinzia D’Iorio, Dean of Continuing Education at New Jersey’s Bergen Community College, says she is thrilled with the expansion of Pell Grants for short-term programs, saying it will benefit many, “Especially for adult learners [who have] realized that you can get a great education online.”
But D’Iorio wonders why online programs, especially those created by community colleges, are excluded just because there is no on-campus class component.
“If you need financial aid, you should not be limited to how you learn to achieve your goals,” she said.
The Dallas Express reached out to Tarrant County Community College and El Centro Community College for comment, but did not receive a response by press time.
The legislation (America Competes Act, H.R. 4521) now moves to a House-Senate committee for further discussion.