This month, several leaders of online universities, community colleges and higher education systems urged congressional leaders to include online-only programs in a bill that would expand Pell Grant eligibility to programs as short as eight weeks.
Their letter comes as Congress mulls whether to pass the Bipartisan Innovation Act, which focuses on supporting semiconductor manufacturing and improving supply chains. An amendment to the House’s version of the bill would allow Pell Grants to cover short-term programs that lead to a postsecondary credential — but it would exclude online-only programs from eligibility.
The college leaders call that a mistake. They say it will harm working adults who often don’t have time to attend in-person classes while juggling career and family obligations.
“The language excluding online programs is a penalty, not a protection, for those learners for whom online programs are their only access point to education and training,” the educators wrote in their letter, which was also signed by major tech and recruiting companies.
Some college leaders blamed the exclusion on the for-profit sector’s checkered history with online education. For-profit colleges used to dominate the online higher education market, but their enrollment has plummeted over the past decade as the sector faced a regulatory crackdown.
Paul LeBlanc, president of Southern New Hampshire University and one of the letter’s signees, said online education and for-profit colleges may be lumped together in lawmakers' minds.
“They’re fighting yesterday’s war,” LeBlanc said. “For-profit providers no longer dominate the online space.”
"For-profit providers no longer dominate the online space.”
President, Southern New Hampshire University
He and other higher ed leaders said they fear the exclusion will bar low-income students from accessing programs that could help them get a leg up in the workforce.
“If you are going to ask a low-income learner to tie themselves to being at a certain place at a certain time, you neglect the fact that time is a function of privilege,” LeBlanc said. “If you’re stuck in a retail job or a fast food job — or many jobs in hospitality — you may not even know what your schedule is next week.”
The push for short-term Pell
Students are already allowed to use Pell Grants for certain short-term programs. To qualify, programs must offer for-credit courses and be approved by accreditors and state regulators. They also must last at least 15 weeks.
But some lawmakers have been advocating for even shorter-term programs to be eligible if they result in an industry credential. At the same time, many institutions have been interested in expanding their short-term offerings.
Nearly nine in 10 surveyed higher education leaders said they see alternative and microcredentials as an important strategy for their future, according to a 2021 poll from HolonIQ, a market research firm.
“If we have language like this pass, it effectively diminishes our ability, if you will, to provide short-term or microcredential pathways that have real market value,” said Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University and another of the letter’s signees.
“There are stark negative outcomes for people of color and women."
Senior director for higher education, New America
While support has been growing in Congress for short-term Pell, few studies have been conducted about the outcomes of these programs.
The research that has emerged suggests short-term programs can pay off, but student outcomes vary widely. Moreover, one study looking at short-term community college programs across three states concluded that the benefits skewed toward male-dominated fields.
“There are stark negative outcomes for people of color and women,” said Amy Laitinen, senior director for higher education at New America, a left-leaning think tank.
New America researcher Monique Ositelu, for instance, found Black and Latino adults who earned a short-term certificate had a median annual income $10,000 to $20,000 less than their White peers with similar credentials.
What guardrails are needed?
The amendment lawmakers are considering includes several provisions for short-term programs to be eligible for Pell Grants. Congress is reconciling differences between the House and Senate versions of the proposed legislation.
Under the current House language, programs would have to provide students with a postsecondary credential and show that the median earnings of their students who complete see a 20% boost. Programs would also have to prominently display several metrics on their websites, including tuition and fees, completion rates and earnings of students six months after their credential is awarded.
To be eligible, the program would also have to be offered through a higher ed institution that has not been a for-profit within the previous three years.
Given the concerns about racial and gender inequities in short-term programs, however, some policy experts are worried that allowing them to be eligible for Pell Grants will harm students.
“We’re going to see an explosion of programs that promise the moon and deliver very little,” Laitinen said.
She argued that the exclusion of online programs is an important guardrail. “These programs are not good generally, and the ability to scale harm is exponentially increased with online education,” Laitinen said.
“We’re going to see an explosion of programs that promise the moon and deliver very little."
Senior director for higher education, New America
Justin Ortagus, a higher education professor at the University of Florida, also argued for safeguards.
For one, strong data is needed to ensure students in these programs are in a better position than they would be if they never enrolled, Ortagus said.
But he argued that lawmakers may be painting in too-broad strokes with the online exclusion. It would make sense to offer some programs online, such as a cybersecurity certificate, he said.
“That does feel like logical policy and good practice moving forward,” Ortagus said. “If you have other certificates such as manufacturing, that may not be appropriate for an online setting, and thereby constitute a poor use of tax dollars.”