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Short-term training short-changes Pell eligibility

Earlier this month, the House of Representatives passed a bill that would increase Pell Grant eligibility. The bill would also allow Pell Grant funds to pay for short-term training programs for the first time. Pell Grants fund college expenses for students from very low income households. One of the standard conditions for Pell eligibility is that the student must enroll in a degree program.

The federal government loves short-term training. Dating back to the Reagan Administration (and probably earlier than that), federally funded short-term training programs aim to put people to work. In the early 1980’s, Reagan’s Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA) tried to address a double-digit national unemployment rate. Since that time, federal job training dollars have flowed regularly.

The problem is these programs don’t work. Short-term training is an expensive, short-term solution to a long-term problem. It does not create a sustainable or cohesive skill base. Participants end up with little more than a random collection of time-limited skills.

Programs experience enormous pressure to demonstrate the “success” of a federally funded training program. As a result, the programs often cater to students who would likely succeed without assistance.

At the same time, program managers steer away participants who would benefit, but are less likely to get or maintain employment from high visibility short-term training programs. The result is that few federal training dollars get spent on the workers who need them the most. And the jobs these programs produce are short-lived.

Early warning is better than short-term training

Bringing Pell Grant funding into the equation will make the situation worse. Pell grant eligibility is lifetime limited. Once a student has exhausted his or her Pell grant eligibility, no more of this important grant funding is available. Running out of financial aid is one of the top reasons community college students drop out of school. Wasting Pell eligibility on short-term training ensures that low-income students will run short on funds for a college degree. Absent a college credential, these students are unlikely to escape poverty.

A better approach would develop early warning tools that recognize fundamental industry shifts that could limit workers’ employability. These tools could help workers understand how their current skills align or diverge with growing employment opportunities. This knowledge could help workers avoid unemployment altogether by enabling them to develop a coherent, connected skill base. But it relies on the community college to adopt a view of workforce development that goes beyond short-term training.

Photo Credit: Maryland Gov Pics, via Flickr