When Washington misses what some working Americans want from college

After years of discussing the need to open new pathways to college for a greater diversity of Americans, it is still surprising to find some well-regarded higher education advocates holding on to the belief that a traditional, full-time college education is the only path to success — or at least the only one to be prioritized by our nation’s higher education policies.

College degrees are indeed great! We need more people with them, and we need to make them more available to those who have been excluded in the past because of income, race or prior schooling.

Yet in a changing economy, with as many jobs requiring technical training as those requiring a university degree, we need to acknowledge that focusing only on four-year programs — and closing off public support to people pursuing alternative job-friendly ways of learning — is likewise bordering on discriminatory, particularly for students who need such options for their immediate economic survival. It’s reflective of a bias against working people within our nation’s higher education policies that must be addressed.

The latest flashpoint in this discussion has been whether a reauthorized Higher Education Act should allow working people to use Pell Grants for high-quality, short-term training. That is, courses that are connected to a local industry, a job and higher wages, but which may not meet the Pell-eligible 600 clock-hour standard set 40 years ago when legislators thought seat-time equaled “quality,” regardless of student outcomes.

Today, with millions of workers seeking new skills to keep pace with accelerating technological change, short-term programs and non-degree credentials are proliferating. Higher income workers, many with BAs, are flocking to these and paying for them out of pocket or with help from their employers.

But what about lower-wage workers, or those employed at smaller companies without tuition reimbursement programs? Shouldn’t our higher education policies help these Americans access the same type of short-term programs sought out by wealthier professionals? We know that people pursuing non-degree certificate programs earn 30 percent more than individuals with a high school diploma alone, and that the wage premium for short-term programs in certain fields is often comparable to or higher than associate’s degrees and even bachelor’s degrees.

Despite this encouraging outcome data, some advocates continue to argue against making it easier for low-wage workers to access short-term programs based on two concerns. The first is tracking. That is, if we give poor workers the opportunity to pursue short-term courses, will they be steered in that direction and away from degree programs? The second concern is quality. There are bad short-term programs out there, including those run by unscrupulous for-profits. Making such alternatives available to low-income workers opens the door to their exploitation.

I completely understand these concerns. No one advocating for a worker-friendly change in the Pell Grant wants working people to get harmed. But we should trust working adults, when given full data about programs’ employment outcomes, can make informed choices about which type of college experience they want to pursue based on their specific life circumstances and aspirations. They do not need to be protected from choosing a quality short-term program that will increase their wages just because it’s not the degree pathway chosen by others. That said, we should do everything we can within the new Higher Education Act (HEA) to make sure people who take short-term programs but who want to later leverage them into a degree are able to do so with full support.

It’s also right to trust the community college administrators, instructors, and industry leaders who have developed successful partnerships around non-degree programs to continue to do so with short-term courses, so long as they continue to demonstrate good student outcomes. Just because there are bad providers out there does not mean that quality education institutions with track records of placing graduates in better-paying jobs should be forbidden from making those programs available free of cost to Pell-eligible students. Such are the “quality assurance” protections that we can put into place to reassure those worried about short-term Pell proposals.

Policymakers outside the Beltway get this. It’s no accident that one of the members of Congress leading the charge to expand Pell grants to quality short-term courses — Virginia senator and former governor Tim Kaine (D-VA) — worked on those issues when he was a state policymaker.

Today, Virginia’s New Economy Workforce Grant provides tuition aid to college-based training programs that have been vetted by the governing boards of eligible institutions. Eligible programs, like Amazon’s partnership with Northern Virginia Community College, must align with a list of high-demand fields set by the Virginia Board of Workforce Development and lead to valuable credentials. Ninety-five percent of the program’s approximately 8,800 participants have successfully completed their training programs, and these students see an average wage gain of 25–50 percent after attaining their credential.

Virginia isn’t alone. Republican and Democratic led states — Iowa, Washington, Tennessee, New Jersey — have incorporated short-term programs and non-degree credentials into their states’ postsecondary attainment goals. With support from funders like the Lumina Foundation, these states are now working together with organizations like National Skills Coalition to scale these efforts while ensuring quality, maintaining full student protections, and meeting industry needs. Lumina and NSC are hoping to take such quality standards to other states, and to bring them to the attention of federal policymakers.

To that end, Senator Kaine has worked with Senator Rob Portman (R-OH) in the last two congresses to promote the JOBS Act, which would extend Pell Grants to quality short-term programs. Senators Kaine and Portman have continued to work with community colleges, workforce development experts, industry leaders and student advocates to insert additional quality assurance measures into an updated version of the JOBS Act, which was reintroduced last week.

As the Senators stated in a New York Times letter to the editor in response to recent questions about their proposal, “Americans feel alienated by a federal higher education policy that communicates one thing: If you aspire to anything but a four-year degree, we will not support you. Calling skills-training programs ineffective does little to change this perception.”

America’s working people get this as well. A recent poll shows that 86 percent of voters support making federal financial aid available for anyone seeking skills training, not just those seeking college degrees. That support includes 91 percent of Democrats, 79 percent of Republicans, and 90 percent of Independents. Support is particularly high with African-American and Hispanic voters (90 percent and 88 percent respectively) and with union members (80 percent). While some might argue that the JOBS Act will steer people away from college to pursue less lucrative careers, 89 percent of voters reject that argument.

It’s time for Washington to catch up — to the states, to the desires of working Americans, and to the realities of a rapidly changing economy that has already left behind 40-year old education quality standards. It’s time for all higher education and workforce advocates concerned about opportunity, equity and the success of students to come together to assess how to bring high quality, work-connected programs alongside degrees as full options for all under the next HEA.