Report: Evidence to Support Short-Term Pell Grants Is Scarce

By Allie Arcese, Sr. Director of Strategic Communications & Engagement

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Managing Editor

Lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have in recent months shown interest in allowing students to use Pell Grant funds for short-term, non-credit-bearing programs. While some have touted that expanding eligibility for the federal aid program could give students more flexibility to pursue alternative paths to a higher education, others have expressed concern that doing so without increasing investment in the program could do more harm than good. 

In a new report published Monday, the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS) finds the evidence to support expanding Pell eligibility to short-term programs is limited. The organization expressed concern over expanding eligibility for the “already under-resourced” program without ensuring high program quality. 

“Proponents assert that these very short programs, generally known as workforce programs and not necessarily accredited, are uniquely flexible and responsive to local industry and employer needs and meet the needs of students seeking a rapid path to improved workforce opportunities and earnings,” the report said. 

Recently, lawmakers have introduced bills such as the Pell Flexibility Act of 2019 and the bipartisan JOBS Act of 2019, which would allow the Pell Grant to be used by students enrolled in short-term skill-based programs on a pilot program basis and allow Pell Grant funds to be used for short-term job training programs, respectively.

Still, in the report TICAS identified gaps in information on the types of short-term programs available. Notably, TICAS wrote that there is no national source of data that would identify which short-term programs would be eligible for federal aid. The organization used state- and college-level data to examine the details of existing programs in Texas, Missouri, and Iowa. The report found the programs very in terms of duration, providers, fields of study, industry alignment, and student outcomes.

Should Congress decide to move forward with expanding Pell Grant eligibility, TICAS recommended that lawmakers should invest in improving data systems to enable the tracking of certain metrics, expand slowly to allow for a thorough evaluation of the expansion and its impact on programs and students, require eligibility to be limited to programs offered at institutions already eligible for Title IV aid, and establish minimum quality standards. 

“The absence of consistently collected data on existing length requirements of short-term programs presents a particular and considerable challenge to understanding the scope and scale of programs being considered for expanded Pell Grant eligibility,” the report said. “Congress has more reason than ever to take care in protecting and strengthening this critical program by meeting the program’s current urgent needs and ensuring it is not put at new risk of abuse. ... Given that the current program length eligibility standards for federal aid are grounded in the history of the abuse of federal funds, more work is needed for institutions and states to improve their ability to accurately track information critical to ensuring that students are well served by these programs.”


Publication Date: 7/24/2019

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