The History of the Short-Term Pell Grant
As most good jobs in today’s economy require education beyond high school, it’s no surprise that equipping more Americans with the credentials they need to succeed remains a high priority. One federal proposal currently being flirted with by policymakers on both sides of the aisle to meet this goal is expanding eligibility for Pell Grants—the government’s flagship student aid program for low- and moderate-income students—to short-term programs that provide at least 150 clock hours of instruction over a minimum of eight weeks.
But if past is prologue, lawmakers should heed lessons learned before opening up nearly $30 billion in Pell funds to these shorter-term programs—often vocational, skills-based courses like manufacturing trainings, IT boot camps, or healthcare certificates—and ensure that strong guardrails are put in place to protect students and taxpayers. At this stage, data on short-term programs is limited, and when it comes to those as short as eight weeks, it’s practically nonexistent. Elevating quality control to the forefront of this conversation is essential; without it, we risk repeating the troubling cycle of fraud, abuse, and poor student outcomes that has resulted from similar policy shifts in the past.
To be clear, such precedents do not mean that Pell funding for shorter-term programs should be off the table. Several programs across the country have become models in innovative career education, and we owe it to students who could benefit from shorter-term courses to closely examine their value through pilot programs and data collection initiatives.
As Congress considers allowing Pell dollars to flow to short-term programs that are largely unproven, historical precedent should serve as a reminder of what’s at stake for students and taxpayers—and of the need for strong quality assurance measures to protect this critical source of student aid.
We haven’t always gotten this right before. Bad actors quickly appeared, for instance, when the federal loan program was opened to for-profit career programs in the late 1960s. National media exposés revealed the extent of the abusive practices and aggressive recruiting tactics these schools used to defraud students, and Congress responded by increasing oversight, including enacting measures to protect returning Vietnam War veterans.
But by the mid-1980s, there was clear evidence that abuses were still plaguing the system: a 1984 report from the Government Accountability Office found that nearly half of for-profit vocational schools had committed some level of fraud, and Congressional hearings on the issue in 1990 exposed widespread predatory recruiting and poor student outcomes. The government again responded with greater oversight, tightening the requirements for federal aid eligibility in the 1992 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act to create the current rules that limit the use of Pell Grants to programs that provide at least 600 clock hours of instruction over a minimum of 15 weeks.
So, we’ve been down this road and back. We’ve seen that when doors are opened to federal aid, predatory institutions often take advantage of newly available funding sources and, ultimately, of students. And we know that the system is still not free of bad actors. Scandals involving for-profit colleges throughout the 2000s and 2010s—like the high-profile closings of ITT Technical Institute and Corinthian Colleges—have continued to reveal fraudulent behaviors, with victims facing poor employment outcomes and unconquerable student debt.
Given this context, policymakers have an obligation to ensure that legislation protects students—and taxpayer dollars—from undue risk. And students should be able to expect that if they use their limited Pell funding on an eligible short-term program, they will receive a credential that has value and provides the skills necessary to move forward in their careers. Without strong guardrails in place to protect them from bad actors, we aren’t currently in a position to promise them that.
While we haven’t always gotten this right before, we have the opportunity to do so now. Congress has a responsibility to consider how well legislation is keeping up with the shifting relationship between higher education and work—but it should take care to avoid replicating the mistakes of the past, and it cannot do so at the expense of Pell students who most need the economic mobility that higher education can provide.