Congress should consider the evidence in funding college students’ success

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As it considers another COVID relief package, Congress should provide additional financial support to unemployed and underemployed workers seeking new skills. Research on the 2008 recession makes clear why that matters: 95 percent of the jobs created in the wake of that recession required a college education. In both good and bad economic times, the likelihood of securing a fulfilling career with good wages and work conditions increases with a college credential.

But not every college credential leads to a job with decent wages. So, as Congress considers how to support the development of new skills that our workforce needs, it should pay attention to the evidence that indicates which investments are most likely to set people up for success; not just during the recession but after it ends.    

Troublingly, Congress is considering a proposal to allow the biggest federal pot of money that supports college students – Pell grants – to be spent on very short-term job training programs (those that are just eight to 15 weeks long). To be clear, many people could benefit from well-designed short-term training programs that confer skills they need to gain a surer foothold in an uncertain economy. Understanding this, many community college leaders support the proposal for short-term Pell as a way to help more students at a time of tremendous need.   

But research shows that, outside of a few fields, short-term certificate programs do not lead to notably higher wages for those who complete them. By comparison, decades of research has found that adults who complete longer programs, like certificates of at least a year in length or two-year associate degree programs, on average see greater returns to their credentials. Economists project that for the foreseeable future, the vast majority of good jobs will necessitate a college education that has traditionally required at least a year to complete. That timeframe may be shorter in the future, but evidence shows that day has not arrived. 

Currently, Pell grants can be used for programs that range from 15 weeks in length, roughly a semester long, to bachelor’s degrees. The risk of moving eligibility for Pell funding to shorter programs is significant, especially for students from low-income backgrounds and students of color, who are most likely to enroll in such programs. Unless Congress required that short-term programs funded by Pell result in living wage jobs – which does not appear to be part of current proposals – its approval of short-term Pell could exacerbate deep race- and income-based disparities in higher education, resulting in an even greater number of Black, Latinx, indigenous and lower-income students being tracked into low-wage jobs.

Congress has much better options. It can provide community colleges direct financial support to build career training programs that will lead to good jobs for their students, which is exactly what it did during the last recession. In 2011, Congress earmarked $2 billion in federal funds – in the form of Trade Adjustment Assistance Grants – for programs at community colleges and other training providers, dedicated to fields ranging from advanced manufacturing and information technology to health care. Bolstered by evidence showing that the program worked, Congress is now considering a similar bipartisan bill.

Another idea that Congress has recently proposed is to double the amount of Pell grants, which also would be rooted in clear evidence of impact. The federal Pell grant program has for over 50 years enabled working-class students to access college, more than paying for itself in the future earnings recipients generate and leading our country to some of the highest college enrollment rates in the world. Analyses also show that the Pell program has resulted in student debt loads that are at least $300 billion lower than they would have been without Pell. 

But because Pell has not kept pace with inflation, students whose families have been hit hardest by the economic downturn will struggle to stay in college — including disproportionate numbers of Black, Latinx and indigenous students. Doubling Pell would enable these and other students to continue their college education and develop the skills needed to pursue better career opportunities during and after the recession.

Congress has before it at least two, evidence-based proposals that it can adopt to ensure that more people are ready for good jobs at the end of the recession. It should do so. But where proposals lack evidence, Congress should exercise caution.  

There is no proof that funding the expansion of programs shorter than 15 weeks will help many people attain good jobs. It is great to see that members of Congress are eager to support college students in the next COVID relief package. But they should not take a path likely to do more harm than good.  

Josh Wyner is vice president of the Aspen Institute and executive director of its College Excellence Program. 

Tags #coronavirus #2019nCoV #contagion community college Great Recession Pell Grant Student financial aid in the United States

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