A sharp debate over short-term credentials

Would expanding Pell Grants to programs as short as eight weeks open up opportunity or turbocharge inequity?

Welcome back. This issue looks at the debate over short-term Pell as well as possible infrastructure spending and a push for incremental credentials. Also a take from U. of Montana prez Seth Bodnar on why postsecondary ed is at a crossroads. (To get this newsletter in your inbox, sign up here.)

How Short Is Too Short?

The debate over short-tem Pell is heating up. Lawmakers and advocates are staking out their positions with a flurry of rhetoric on the JOBS Act, which was reintroduced with bipartisan support in Congress last week.

The bill would expand eligibility for federal Pell Grants to postsecondary programs that are as short as eight weeks, down from the current minimum of 15 weeks or 600 clock hours.

Sen. Bob Portman, the Ohio Republican who co-sponsored the bill, said students in many short-term training programs in his state’s community colleges cannot qualify for Pell, including learners enrolled in welding, precision machining, and electrical trades. “We need the JOBS Act now,” Portman said last week on the Senate floor, calling the bill a top priority. “It’s going to help tens of thousands of people have better opportunities.

Amy Laitinen was having none of that. In a Tweet barrage the director of higher education policy at New America called short-term Pell “free money for programs that promise the moon and deliver poverty-level jobs or unemployment.” The former Obama White House and Education Department official said short-term Pell will be marketed to black and brown students and will “turbocharge already existing inequities in our higher ed system.

This site pulls together critical views of short-term Pell from New America, Third Way, The Institute for College Access & Success (TICAS), and other groups, including a recent brief from Monique Ositelu, a senior policy analyst with New America:

Backers of the Bill

The American Association of Community Colleges (AACC) supports the JOBS Act. So does the National Skills Coalition. I reached out to both groups to get their response to Laitinen’s arguments.

Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior fellow with the National Skills Coalition, says:

“We can’t look at the outcomes of short-term programs divorced from where many people are starting in the labor market. For many low-income adults, short-term programs lead to increased earnings and access to benefits. In Virginia’s Fast Forward program, students see an average of 25-50 percent wage increase and 90 percent report getting jobs with health benefits for the first time ever in their lives. The idea that short-term programs – with quality standards like those in Virginia, which the JOBS Act includes – are harmful to people really begs the question of the definition of harm.”

David Baime, AACC’s senior vice president for government relations and policy analysis, says:

“AACC strongly supports the JOBS Act because it would provide a start in higher education, and a substantial wage increase, for thousands of financially disadvantaged people. We can’t know its full benefits until it is enacted, but they will be substantial. If you ask community college presidents what changes they would like to see in federal policy, the overwhelming majority will quickly cite Pell Grant eligibility for short-term programs.”

Incremental Credentials

As part of a push to help college graduates and those who leave before completing be more employable, a growing number of institutions are adding professional certifications to degree programs. Likewise, some experts are calling for four-year colleges to award associate degrees to students who are halfway to completing their bachelor’s, so students will have a credential if they don’t make it to graduation.

Credentials As You Go is a recently created project seeking to develop a nationally recognized incremental credentialing system. The Lumina Foundation-funded initiative aims to encourage the development of transferrable credentials beyond existing certificates and degrees. SUNY Empire State College has signed onto a pilot version with Rockland and Suffolk Community Colleges, in part to model policy changes that could work at the university-system level.

The goal of the Credentials As You Go is to empower more people to earn high-quality postsecondary credentials as they continue to learn throughout their lives and careers, says Holly Zanville, senior scholar and co-director of the program on skills, credentials and workforce policy at George Washington University’s Institute of Public Policy.

“The traditional degree-centric system is punitive to many learners,” she says. “It treats students who drop or stop out as if they have no college-level learning despite the growing array of shorter-term credentials they could earn which may be valuable to entering and advancing in the job market.”

Kaplan Credegrees

The University of Montana is working to boost its students’ job readiness and marketability. The flagship public has partnered with Kaplan to offer industry-recognized credentials (Kaplan Credegrees) in more than 30 tech fields, including cybersecurity, data science, data literacy, and digital marketing. Alumni and former students also can earn Credegrees.

I reached out to Seth Bodnar, Montana’s president (a former Rhodes scholar, GE executive, West Point faculty member, and Green Beret) to hear more about the partnership.

“The ultimate goal is that all UM students will graduate with a UM degree, one or more internship opportunities, and an industry-recognized credential,” Bodnar says, adding that “higher education must do a better job at equipping students with ‘in-demand’ applied skills, especially as AI and machine learning advance at breakneck pace, so that they hit the professional ground running on Day One.”

He says the shift is about reimagining the curriculum, not abandoning general education or the liberal arts.

Kaplan will help the university to offer a broad suite of short-term credentials and be able to pivot quickly at a “more than reasonable” cost, says Bodnar. The partnership also enables Montana to white-label offerings to learners beyond university students and alumni, he says, including to up-skillers, job changers, and corporate workforce development partners.

The Kicker:

When asked to respond to skepticism about the need to better connect degrees to jobs, and whether this is encouraging learners to take responsibility for training employers should provide:

“There is a great quote from the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men that says, ‘…you can’t stop what is coming, it ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.’ Similarly, students, families, and employers have already spoken, and they are demanding that we do a better job at preparing students for work, plain and simple. As cliché as it may sound, postsecondary education is at a crossroads.

“Despite increasing competition from private recruitment and training companies, now Google, industry leaders still believe that colleges and universities can be the source of such pre-professional skilling. Therefore, colleges and universities currently maintain at least some degree of the public’s trust to make such change happen. However, that window is slowly closing and colleges and universities ultimately control their own destiny as it concerns such innovation, and ultimately for some, their survival.” 

Infrastructure Year?

The White House is working on two proposals for $3 trillion in spending on infrastructure, education, workforce development, and tackling climate change, according to reports in The New York Times, The Washington Post, and other news outlets. Details remain thin, and White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki cautioned against speculating about what would be in the spending plans. But the newspapers said President Biden’s advisers are expected to present the proposals this week to the president and Congressional leaders, with industry and labor groups to follow.

Free community college, $100 billion for school infrastructure, and training for millions of workers in high-growth industries could be in the plans. Congressional Republicans already are pushing back on the spending ideas.

Sen. Tim Kaine, a Virginia Democrat and co-sponsor of the JOBS Act, wants short-term Pell to be included in this economic recovery package, a source says, and has spoken to the White House about it.

Open Tabs

Community Colleges

Enrollment at California community colleges was down far more than expected last fall, about 11-12 percent, according to the state’s two-year system and as reported by Ed Source. “These enrollment declines represent a significant challenge for the system overall and potential future threat to individual colleges’ viability barring significant local efforts to remain student-centered,” the system said.

Just 10.7 percent of community college students who were recipients of Detroit Promise Path scholarships earned a degree or certificate within six semesters, according to an evaluation of the program by MDRC. While the program had a positive impact on students’ likelihood of staying enrolled, overall retention rates remained quite low. “It’s not just about access,” the group said. “Students also need help with college progress and college success.”

Enrollment of Black men fell 33 percent this fall at Cleveland’s Cuyahoga Community College, with steep declines at other nearby two-year institutions as well, reported Amy Morona, a higher education reporter for Crain’s Cleveland Business, in partnership with Open Campus.

North Carolina’s community colleges had an 11-percent enrollment dip last fall, EducationNC reported. Courses in workforce training (22 percent) and basic skills (51 percent) accounted for the biggest declines.

Strategies for bringing students back to two-year colleges and helping them stay enrolled include offering emergency aid, forgiving small debts, partnerships to cover tuition, no penalties for pauses in enrollment, and shifts in marketing and outreach to students, according to New America, which created a new hub for its public opinion research on higher education.

Many faculty members describe deeper relationships with students after reaching out to them virtually to talk about challenges that might prevent their academic progress, reports Achieving the Dream from conversations with community college leaders across its network.

Federal Policy

A bipartisan group of Senators have reintroduced a bill to drop the federal ban on collecting individual student records for a government-run postsecondary student data system. Access to such accurate and timely information would help “answer critical questions about college access, affordability, completion, workforce outcomes, and equity,” said Mamie Voight, interim president at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

State Policy

Higher education tax appropriations in 35 states declined from fiscal year 2020 to 2021, according to inflation-adjusted estimates from the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association. The 1.8 percent national decline in state appropriations was largely felt by two-year colleges (down 2 percent or $457 million) with support for public four-year institutions decreasing only slightly (0.1 percent or $63 million).


Alison Griffin is a higher-ed policy expert and senior vice president at Whiteboard Advisors. Her newsletter is helpful for keeping tabs on Colorado, a growing purple state that’s seeking to close wide equity gaps. Griffin sent over details about the Colorado Trustee Network, a newly formed group of trustees from every public college and university in the state:

“The Network will be focused on three things: 1) affordability and funding issues for Colorado higher education; 2) educational equity; 3) alignment of postsecondary education and workforce. The CTN hosted a summit in January and just last week hosted a forum on the Colorado higher ed funding formula.”


Gov. Mike Dewine has proposed $70 million to upskill Ohioans who want in-demand, tech-focused credentials, including $55 million for the state’s TechCred program, which features credentials that can be completed in a year or less.


Fully 80 percent of first-year students enrolled at public institutions in Texas in 2018 were attending community colleges, according to a newly released annual report from Trellis Company. Roughly half (48 percent) of the state’s undergraduates were enrolled part-time.

Reports, Research, Events

“You can definitely certify soft skills” in learning and employment records, Amy Wright, managing partner for talent and transformation at IBM, said this week during the American Council on Education’s annual meeting. She also said IBM is deepening its ties to higher education. “We have to depend on an ecosystem of partners in a way we never did before.”

While unemployment rates fell for all groups during the third and fourth quarters, Latino unemployment remained 60 percent higher than white unemployment, while Black unemployment rose from 60 percent higher to 90 percent higher, according to an analysis from the Economic Policy Institute, which includes state unemployment data by race and ethnicity.

A report from the Education Strategy Group features advice for college and state decisionmakers on how to quickly support displaced workers in getting the skills they need to transition careers, including through reordered degree pathways that “front-load embedded non-degree credentials.”

Strategies for how colleges can engage employers and develop stronger linkages between academic programming and workforce needs include developing opportunities for lifelong learning beyond a bachelor’s degree, such as short-term certificates and microcredentials, and partnering with employers and peer institutions to create a shared vocabulary around skills and competencies, according to a new report from the Presidents Forum.

Advance CTE released a report created with input from a broad range of stakeholders that describes a “cohesive, flexible, and responsive career preparation ecosystem that will close equity gaps in educational outcomes and workforce readiness.”

Monthly payroll employment gains should average between 700,000 and 1 million jobs over the next 10 months, according to an estimate from researchers at the Brookings Institution based on GDP forecasts.

Let me know what I missed? Catch you next week — PF @paulfain

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