Excluding online programs from Pell expansion won’t solve the quality issue

Excluding online programs from short-term Pell won’t keep low-quality programs out—but it will restrict access for students who need flexibility, writes James Dean Ward of Ithaka S+R. Instead of blanket exclusions, we need more accurate measures of quality.

As Congress moves forward on expanding the Pell Grant to short-term certificates, there’s an important caveat: online education programs will be excluded. The amendment specifically states that to be eligible the short-term program must “not [be] offered exclusively through distance education or a correspondence course.” Although well-intentioned, this amendment seeks to solve a quality issue through the wrong channel. 

Excluding online programs will not prevent low-quality programs from existing and attracting students. Instead it limits opportunities for geographically-isolated students and those who need more flexible course schedules by restricting their access to financial aid.

Evidence on the value of short-term credentials is mixed. Labor market returns and employment rates for students with a short-term credential are typically lower than those with longer-term credentials like an associate or bachelor’s degree. In fact, many individuals with a short-term credential earn less than the poverty rate.

Moreover, there is significant variability across fields. For example, a short-term certificate in accounting or finance may provide employment opportunities that result in higher wages, but one in liberal arts or education may have less of a wage premium. The problem here is that short-term credentials appear to only have value under specific circumstances, and our oversight mechanisms—the triad consisting of state governments, accrediting agencies, and the U.S. Department of Education—ought to focus on ensuring only high-quality short-term credentials are available to students, regardless of whether those credentials are offered online or in-person.

There are also valid concerns about the outcomes of students enrolled in online programs. Generally speaking, students underperform when enrolled online compared to in-person classes. These gaps appear to widen for historically underserved students, creating equity concerns with outcomes of online programs. The issue is complicated by the disproportionate share of online programs being offered at for-profit colleges, many of which have a long track record of defrauding and exploiting students.

That said, with strong supports in place, plenty of students do find success in online programs—and for many of them that may be the only way they can access education. Our research at Ithaka S+R also suggests that increasing online options, by lowering administrative hurdles, may provide access to students who previously had limited opportunities to enroll due to geography or scheduling. In particular, the flexibility of online coursework may open opportunities for working professionals or parents to take classes in the evenings and on weekends.

In short: The intersection of concerns over short-term credentials and online credentials is not unfounded given what we know about each. Policymakers are rightly concerned that giving these programs access to Pell funds will result in the waste of public dollars. However, excluding online programs from the Pell expansion is not the way to ensure quality. 

Instead, accreditors and states should be focused on the end result—value for the student consumer—not mode or method of teaching. Ideally, we would use randomized control experiments to understand the value of these short-term programs, and how that value varies across fields of study and modes of delivery. While the Department of Education did conduct an experiment to gauge the impact of Pell expansion, it looked only at enrollment and completion, and the effects between online and in-person programs were not explored.

Despite paltry evidence of the value of short-term programs, Congress is seeking to move forward with Pell expansion anyway. This move will at least provide researchers the opportunity, albeit a much more expensive one, to better understand the effects of Pell expansion on labor market opportunities. The exclusion of online programs, however, will still leave an important blindspot in our understanding of the value of short-term programs.

While advocates for educational quality should continue working to improve our measures and oversight mechanisms, the federal government is wise to fill in gaps in the meantime. To this end, the Pell expansion includes safeguards that short-term programs need to demonstrate that students increase earnings after completion. Some colleges, especially those in the for-profit sector, have a history of manipulating federal oversight metrics, which is a reasonable concern to be monitored. 

However, if the federal government has opted to allow students to use Pell dollars at short-term programs and has included quality control measures, banning the use of these funds based on the mode of delivery is short-sighted and counterproductive. 

Excluding online programs, during a time when the utility of distance learning has been underscored, stands to limit access for students who may not have reliable transportation or consistent schedules that make on-campus programs feasible. If Congress believes short-term programs are valuable enough to expand Pell, excluding online programs stands to limit access to the students who may need it most.

James Dean Ward is a senior researcher at Ithaka S+R.

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