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Workforce Pell Grant isn’t the solution

I read an opinion piece recently that advocated for the passage of the “workforce Pell” bill. The bill, which is stuck in the House of Representatives, would expand the use of the Pell Grant to cover short-term workforce development programs. By itself, the bill has a lot of bi-partisan support – just not enough to pass the House of Representatives.

The bill – or more precisely – the idea of using Pell Grants to pay for short-term training programs also has a lot of detractors. The teachers’ unions are opposed to it, as are a lot of high-tier universities. That’s because Republicans will only support the bill if it doesn’t create a need for new funding.

The bill’s solution, then, is to impose a “tax” of sorts on higher education institutions that have large endowments. That approach would effectively prohibit these institutions from distributing Pell Grants to otherwise qualified students there.

The notion that one group can acquire something only by taking money away from another group is sad. Pell Grants are available only to severely low-income students, and there is a per-semester cap on the size of a Pell Grant. There are also lifetime limits on Pell Grant eligibility.

No matter how you slice it, taking money away from low-income students who enroll at high-cost universities to give it to low income students who want to enroll in a short term training programs is still taking money away from low-income students.

The notion that we can’t expand the amount of aid available to low-income students, or that the number of eligible low-income students won’t change over time is also ridiculous. That’s a discussion for a different day.

Expand the Pell Grant to help everyone who needs help

The real problem with the idea of using Pell Grant money to pay for short-term workforce training programs is that these short-term programs show little evidence of long-term economic impact on program participants. What’s the point in minimally training workers for a job that chronically underpays them? Worse, what’s the point in taking grant money away from a low-income student who is enrolled in a program that will likely help him/her to permanently escape poverty to give it to someone who is enrolled in a program that will likely keep them permanently impoverished?

Instead, how about focusing a community college’s effort on creating academic programs that prepare people appropriately for high-wage, high-demand jobs? As in jobs that can help them escape from poverty long-term?
Expanding the Pell Grant program to pay for short-term training programs for low-wage jobs isn’t worth the damage it will do to both the person training for the low-wage job and the person whose opportunity to compete for high-wage work has been extinguished.

Photo Credit: Grant Source , via Flickr