Build Back Better punishes low-income students

As a former Democratic member of Congress, I have seen first-hand the commitment many Democratic leaders have in advocating for educational opportunities for the most vulnerable and underserved Americans. Today, as president of Career Education Colleges and Universities, I see every day the benefit of that educational opportunity, which has transformed the lives of millions of low-income students who are often at a crossroads in their lives. 

That’s why I was surprised to see that the most recent version of President Biden’s Build Back Better plan punishes low-income students who choose to attend proprietary career schools. This policy is counterproductive for America and delivers a slap in the face to the students at our institutions who are making sacrifices and working hard to better their futures.

The Build Back Better Act, as it is currently written, would prevent students who attend for-profit career colleges from receiving the same $550 Pell Grant increase made available to all other students. Over the past 40 plus years, the Pell Grant program has been a key component of our nation’s commitment to increasing access to educational opportunities for low-income students. Why would Congress choose to deprive the roughly 1 million students enrolled at for-profit institutions of this increased financial assistance? 

Instead of supporting the financial needs of students, the legislation punishes them for attending their school of choice — the one that best fits their personal situation and career goals. The Pell Grant program is particularly important for minority students: almost 58 percent of African American, 47 percent of Hispanic and 51 percent of Native American/Native Alaskan students receive Pell Grants while earning their degrees. These are the types of students who would be most disadvantaged by this misguided proposal. 

Many of our Pell Grant recipients are graduates who have served heroically on the front lines fighting the COVID-19 pandemic as health care workers in hospitals and medical facilities. Our students will lead the way in implementing the provisions of the new infrastructure law, becoming solar panel and windmill technicians, HVAC workers, auto and aviation technicians, truck drivers, welders and many other occupations.

For most of their lives, many of the students we serve have had to spend their days proving their worth despite significant obstacles in their paths. The last place they should have to fight for recognition is in front of the politicians who pride themselves on protecting the welfare and upward mobility of people just like them. But some Democrats have chosen to fight for these students. Last week, 13 Democratic members of Congress stepped up in opposition to the Pell Grant provision in the Build Back Better Act that would exclude for-profit college students. These members understand that our students are just as worthy as those at any other institution. 

To help the roughly 1 million students who would be impacted by this exclusion, Congress must rectify this issue and remove this unfair exclusion from the bill. We know our students are worthy and deserve every opportunity to succeed as they work to better their lives. Many will be called on to help rebuild America’s infrastructure in the coming months, but they can’t do that when Washington’s leaders stack the deck against them. To truly “Build Back Better,” members of Congress must support all students and apply the increased Pell Grant funds to students at all schools.

Jason Altmire is the president and CEO of Career Education Colleges and Universities (CECU), the national organization serving postsecondary career education students, schools and staff. He is a former Democratic member of Congress, having served three terms in the House of Representatives from 2007-2013. Follow him on Twitter @jasonaltmire.