U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN), current chairman of the Health, Education, Labor & Pensions Committee (HELP), took an important step last week by including a robust, well-designed version of the JOBS Act in the Student Aid Improvement Act – legislation designed to take a first step toward reauthorization of the Higher Education Act. If successful, the “JOBS Act” language would become a provision or title in the larger Act, so that shorter length courses aimed at job skills sets needed by businesses (including the A/E/C industry) would be recognized and funded through Pell Grant dollars. The so-called “Workforce Pell” grants which are championed by Sens. Portman (R-OH) and Kaine (D-VA), as well as the White House strongly support this legislation. What matters most in this debate is not whether the entity offering the courses is a public vs. private institution, but rather the quality of the training and whether or not it’s cost effective. To this end, the Student Aid Improvement Act includes thoughtful safeguards to protect against abuses.
The Opportunity America Jobs & Careers Coalition (which CIRT is a member) pointed out in a letter supporting Sen. Alexander’s approach: “Training is often offered in the more flexible, fast-moving continuing education division of the college. Many if not most programs prepare students to earn qualifications – industry certifications, technical certificates, and licensure – highly valued in the labor market.” However, the Coalition confirmed that one of the greatest barriers or impediments to these offerings, is the fact: “federal student aid isn’t keeping up with this innovation.” Even though, the Pell Grant program disbursed some $28.2 billion last year in needs-based funding to cover tuition and other college costs. Under current law, “Pell Grants are available only to students working to earn academic certificates or degrees, and they cover only programs that are at least a semester in length.” [See, Coalition letter on this matter for details].
Sen. Alexander appears to be making a valiant attempt – a serious effort –to attract bipartisan backing. However, to date HELP ranking member Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) has not joined Sen. Alexander in introducing the legislation, and some education advocacy groups are hesitating to endorse it because it would allow students to use Pell Grants for short job training programs at for-profit colleges as well as community colleges.