Proposals to change Pell may get new life

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Delece Smith-Barrow

By Olivia Sanchez

As the needs of the post-pandemic economy evolve and new Democratic leadership gets settled in Washington, several fabled ideas for revamping the Pell Grant program could have new life pumped into them. Three proposals now in play would transform the Pell Grant as it approaches its 50th birthday.
 
The proposals would expand eligibility to short-term certificate programs, allow DACA students to apply and increase grants by $400.
 
Students whose families earn less than certain thresholds can use Pell dollars on programs that span at least 600 clock hours over at least 15 weeks. Congress sets the annual maximum a student can obtain — $6,495 for the 2021-22 academic year — but the amount a student receives varies based on need and other factors. The program was initially designed to pay for associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, but many vocational programs are also eligible.
 
A new bill proposed by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., known as the JOBS Act, would greatly expand which programs are eligible for these federal funds. It would allow students to use Pell dollars on programs that are at least 150 clock hours over eight weeks — a change he says would serve as a “launching pad into the workforce.”
 
Although it has been introduced twice before without progressing, proponents say the coronavirus pandemic makes this legislation more important than ever because so many people are still unemployed.
 
At a hearing Tuesday in Washington, Kaine said that many of these unemployed workers need access to short-term credential programs because of the obligations they have to their families.
 
To be approved for Pell money, the short-term programs would have to meet the needs of the local or regional workforce; provide institutional credit articulation so students can pursue further education; and provide licenses, certifications or credentials that meet the hiring requirements of multiple employers in the given field.
 
So far, 33 of his Senate colleagues, from both parties, have signed on as co-sponsors.
 
Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said this idea, which he’s long supported, is finally gaining momentum.
 
“This is a non-degree view of the world,” he recently told my colleague Jill Barshay. “It’s the training system American never had. But everyone recognizes that we need it now — we’ve needed it for a while… Having a training Pell Grant is a revolution.”
 
But some advocates are wary.
 
Amy Laitinen, director of higher education within the education policy program at New America, said she agrees the federal government should invest in job training programs, but that Pell isn’t the appropriate vehicle.
 
“The idea is being marketed as, you know, ‘there is a very, very short-term shortcut to making a middle-class wage,’ and for the most part that’s not true,” Laitinen said. “There just aren’t a lot of shortcuts.”
 
A recent New America data analysis showed that more than half of employed adults with a short-term certificate earned $30,000 or less per year and the median income ranged from $20,000 to $30,000. The analysis also found that women and people of color earned less than their counterparts with similar certificates.
 
Kaine’s team says the program will give more people of all backgrounds access to postsecondary training. Laitinen fears it will end up “tracking Black and brown folks into these programs that lead to low-paying jobs.”
 
Wesley Whistle, New America’s senior advisor for policy and strategy, said he worries about the conflation of a higher education degree and a postsecondary certificate.
 
“A wage improvement is good, but the point of higher education isn't to just give you a $2 wage bump. It's about a middle-class job,” Whistle said. “You leave higher education — you should — with a different kind of employability and earning potential.”
 
Increased funding
 
In a discretionary budget proposal addressed to the Senate Appropriations Committee, President Joe Biden proposed boosting Pell grants by $400 — what he says is the first step toward his goal of eventually doubling the amount. If it gets through, this would represent the largest single increase to Pell in more than a decade.
 
Kim Cook, the executive director of the National College Attainment Network, said in a statement that the increase is an encouraging step toward doubling it — which she said would restore the purchasing power to about half the cost of college for a bachelor’s degree at an in-state, public university.
 
Expanded eligibility
 
Biden’s proposal would also create a pathway to federal aid for undocumented students who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. It’s unclear exactly how many students this would make eligible for Pell funding because of DACA’s narrow eligibility requirements.
 
Candy Marshall, president of the scholarship and advocacy group TheDream.US, urged lawmakers to consider making students with Temporary Protective Status, or TPS, eligible for Pell, too. People with this status are in the United States legally, often after a natural disaster or unrest in their native country, and are allowed to work.
 
Send story ideas and news tips to osanchez@hechingerreport.org. Tweet at @oliviarsanchez. Read high-quality news about innovation and inequality in education at The Hechinger Report.
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