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New legislation expands Pell Grant eligibility to include short-term programs but excludes online education.

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New legislation to expand Pell Grant eligibility for students enrolled in short-term skills and job training programs has wide support in Congress, even though it excludes students attending these programs online, a provision some community college leaders and online education advocates call a mistake.

The legislation, which the House of Representatives passed Feb. 4, now heads to conference committee, where legislators will hammer out a final bill. The bill passed the Senate last year, but without an amendment the House bill included, which contains the Pell Grant–expansion language. The language calls for allowing Pell Grants to apply to any short-term program with “at least 150 clock hours of instruction time over a period of at least 8 weeks” as long as it is not primarily delivered online.

Cinzia D’Iorio, dean of continuing education at New Jersey’s Bergen Community College, said she is thrilled by the possibility of expanded Pell Grant eligibility for short-term programs, which she said have benefited many students at her institution. But D’Iorio questioned why online programs have been excluded, particularly since many high-quality, short-term online programs have been created by community colleges amid the pandemic. D’Iorio said Bergen CC has seen a sharp uptick in interest in short-term online certification courses, which would be excluded from the Pell Grant expansion.

D’Iorio said that “especially for adult learners, people have realized that you can get a great education online … If you need financial aid, you shouldn’t be limited to how you’re going to learn to achieve your goals.”

Russell Poulin, executive director of the WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies, which is focused on improving the quality and reach of digital learning programs, said he was disturbed by the provision excluding all online programs. He cited strong short-term online programs, such as cybersecurity boot camps and other certificate programs, with good student success results such as those offered by Western Governors University and many community colleges.

Poulin said the legislation should be based on program outcomes as opposed to modality.

“It’s very disturbing that they would make such a blanket exclusion of distance education,” Poulin said. “I’ve seen this several times where there’s this misconception that anything that is fully online must be offered by a for-profit institution.”

Many for-profit institutions have a history of poor student success metrics. But Poulin said the bulk of online programs offered today come from nonprofit players like community colleges. He said the legislation’s authors’ “aim is a little broad, and they’re probably hitting institutions that they don’t mean to hit.”

A staffer for the House Committee on Education and Labor said the amendment’s language was originally negotiated in the Senate and provided by Senate managers of the legislation, which suggests the Pell Grant expansion will remain in the final bill.

“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,” the amendment’s sponsor, Representative Andy Levin, a Michigan Democrat, 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 … This 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.”

The House committee staffer said the lawmakers agreed with Senate managers on limiting the Pell expansion to only brick-and-mortar or hybrid options, because they are associated with better outcomes for students. The legislation is meant to help individuals pursue short-term programs that will lead to high-skill, high-wage jobs, the staffer said, and is particularly geared to allow people to retrain and quickly re-enter the workforce to occupy jobs that have gone unfilled in the wake of the pandemic.

Kevin Miller, associate director for higher education at the Bipartisan Policy Center, said many short-term programs deliver poor results for students, which, he said, is why online programs may have been excluded.

“Skeptics on these programs are essentially just worried about throwing federal money at low-quality programs,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of caution about trying to build this expansion in a way that isn’t likely to end up with wasted money.”

Monique Ositelu, a senior policy analyst at New America, a Washington think tank, said New America conducted a nationally representative survey of students who received nondegree credentials in fewer than 15 weeks and found that half of them have earnings below the national poverty line for a household of four. She said 41 percent of students whose highest level of educational attainment was a nondegree credential were unemployed at the time of the survey.

Tom Brock, director of the Community College Research Center at Teachers College of Columbia University, supports the expansion of Pell to cover short-term programs, which he said are a very common offering at community colleges. Brock said the U.S. Department of Education evaluated short-term Pell Grants and found they were beneficial to students in achieving certificate and degree goals, though he acknowledged the validity of concerns that some of the programs don’t lead to good jobs.

“It’s kind of a balancing act—you want to encourage students who are taking this step to further their education, who see it as a stepping-stone into the workforce,” Brock said. “At the same time, you don’t want to provide federal resources for programs that are of no value if they’re going to providers that simply are not delivering training that will lead somewhere for students. You also want to make sure you’re protecting taxpayers, who are ultimately footing the bill.”

Brock said online programs were likely excluded from the Pell expansion because they have historically underperformed. However, he said, online courses have become far more common since the pandemic, and community colleges have become increasingly experienced in the modality.

He called the “blanket exclusion” of online programs problematic. Instead, he said, Congress should enact quality standards requiring institutions to “demonstrate clearly that students who go through these programs do get jobs, do earn salaries or hourly wages that justify the investment in that short-term program.”

Many community college leaders interviewed were ecstatic about the legislation’s expansion of the Pell Grant to include short-term programs. Still, many worried about what they saw as an arbitrary exclusion of online programs, particularly since they are often the only option for adult learners.

“It’s unfortunate that online programs are excluded, because that is an equity issue currently being overlooked,” said Marie Hulett, executive director of institutional advancement at Chemeketa Community College in Oregon, which offers 18 short-term certificates that a student can complete fully online. “For many students, online courses are truly the only option for higher education. Between work and family obligations, and even transportation difficulties, taking courses on campus can be a huge barrier to completing a college education and workforce training.”

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