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Debating the Path Forward for Pell Flexibility in Short-Term Programs

As the House Education and Labor Committee and the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) continue their discussions around reauthorization of the Higher Education Act (HEA), most of the public chatter in the space centers around hot-button issues, including college affordability and student debt. This means that other aspects of a potential deal on HEA reauthorization are flying under the radar.

However, although conservatives should support the most limited possible scope of federal involvement in education, up to and including termination of the Department of Education, there is room for improvement in the way that the federal system currently handles its involvement. One such issue that deserves attention is an effort to bring federal student aid in line with the educations that best suit the job market that we currently have in our country. Chief among this, and often left behind when talking about “higher education” is career and technical education.

To improve situation with the goal of bolstering our workforce and filling the skills gap, Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.) who serves on HELP, has presented the Pell Flexibility Act, S. 1072, to reform the Pell grant program to allow these government grants to low-income college students to be used for short-term programs, including career and technical training. As the structure currently stands, much federal education aid is only eligible to be used on programs that are federally-accredited traditional four-year college degrees, despite the fact that this type of degree may not and often is not best suited for individuals or for the available jobs.

Opening up the use of Pell grant funds to short-term programs makes federal aid in education more suitable to the needs of the job market and the needs of low-income students to have the best chance of using the funds they receive for the ultimate goal of stable and gainful employment. Especially at this point in our country’s history, when the economy is booming and employers are seeking out qualified candidates, we need to take a serious look at the perverse incentives that federal education aid has created over time.

However, even such a reasonable expansion of Pell grant usage to short-term career and technical education programs comes with its own debates. A competing bill, the JOBS Act introduced by Sen. Tim Kaine (D-Va.) seems to do the same thing on its face as Sen. Braun’s Pell Flexibility Act, but as always, the devil is in the details especially in legislation.

One can be confident that Sen. Braun, who has distinguished himself as a reliable and principled conservative in Congress during his first few months in the Senate, has made careful note that his bill is crafted in the most targeted and fiscally responsible way, to minimize the effect on taxpayers on the front end and maximize the effect on the economy and society on the back end.

Instead of allowing Pell grants to be used for certification programs for jobs that aren’t in high demand as the JOBS Act does, the Pell Flexibility Act ensures that institutions seeking approval for their programs are training students for jobs in the skills gap. This is not to say that students passionate about photography or cosmetology should not pursue this path if they have the means and the desire to, but simply to say that federal aid in education, if it is to exist, should only be funding those ventures that we know will be successful in the current workforce and make for effective use of those funds.

Furthermore, the Pell Flexibility Act monitors job placement as a result of the use of Pell grants and requires reporting to Congress to ensure that the eligibility expansion is working as planned, neither of which are included in the JOBS Act. The Pell Flexibility Act also has an identical version in the House with all of the same safeguards for taxpayers. Unfortunately, the JOBS Act in the House moves further away from this goal, changing the Pell grant program from discretionary spending to mandatory spending, which actually allows Congress to turn a blind eye by putting this spending on autopilot outside of the annual approval of Congress.

In a situation where our nation’s debt has surpassed $22 trillion, yet we have so many available jobs in the workforce, members of Congress debating between these two bills for inclusion in Higher Education Act reauthorization should know that their choice is clear. There is no place in Congress today for an unaccountable, although well-intentioned, expansion of Pell such as the JOBS Act. Instead, members should look toward the narrowly and intentionally targeted Pell Flexibility Act led by Sen. Braun to meet their goals of helping to close the skills gap and keeping the economy on its impressive upward trajectory.