In debate over short-term Pell, we can’t ignore the labor market’s role

Labeling education programs that lead to low-wage jobs as “low-quality” obscures the true problem—a labor market failure, writes Michelle Van Noy, director of the Education and Employment Research Center at Rutgers.

The ongoing debate over expanding federal Pell Grants to cover short-term programs recently saw its latest salvo, as the presidents of several online institutions sent a letter to Congress urging for online programs to be included. On one side of the conversation are education providers, who tend to argue that Pell grants should cover as many programs as possible to give students more options. On the other side, policymakers and advocacy groups have expressed concern that funding shouldn’t be expanded without appropriate quality controls in place.

Michelle Van Noy

The debate about short-term Pell is, in many ways, all about tradeoffs. If many short-term programs lead to low-paying jobs, then funding those programs might not be worth the public investment. And limiting funding only to programs that lead to higher paying jobs would provide a clearer pathway to stable careers—and might better incentivize learners to pursue these fields.

On the other hand, though, many low-paying roles are critical to the function of our society. Don’t workers in low-wage jobs also need to have adequate support and training to do their jobs safely and effectively, and to begin to imagine further pathways for themselves? Is it not important to make sure that early childhood workers, CNAs, and home healthcare workers are well prepared to do their demanding and difficult jobs?

What these tradeoffs clearly indicate is that any discussion of funding for short-term training programs cannot be separated from broader conversations about the labor market. To address concerns about public investment and create appropriate guardrails to prevent abuse of short-term Pell funding, policymakers need to recognize the critical role that labor market dynamics play in the conversation. Here are a few ways to do that.    

Call out the real problem at hand—the labor market. Labeling short-term programs that lead to low-wage jobs as “low-quality” obscures the true problem: the labor market failure that leads to the prevalence of undervalued, low-wage jobs in today’s economy.

Rather than simply excluding these workers from the benefits of education, policies that seek to promote social mobility should support solutions that directly engage the actual problem of low wages in undervalued occupations. Policymakers and education providers alike need to acknowledge that workers in undervalued jobs are important, and seek ways that education can support the low-wage workforce and the goal of social mobility. The most basic way to do this is to keep this issue at the fore and not obscure it by saying that the education programs that prepare people for undervalued jobs are low quality.

Address the training needs of the low-wage workforce. The United States does not provide adequate funding support for education and training in a systematic way for anyone—but most blatantly for workers in low-wage occupations. Most resources are devoted to programs leading to higher-wage occupations; in short, those with a college education get more training.

What about workers in those jobs at the lower end of the occupational spectrum? Why not invest in those workers as well? Programs targeted at these occupations can include broader skills development to ensure that students have the ability to pursue pathways for further education. The I-BEST model, for example, presents a strategy for developing programs that ensure learners develop broader basic skills alongside immediately job-relevant skills.

In this way, short-term programs can help people who work in low-wage fields have the skills not only to be able to safely and effectively do their jobs but also to advance in their education. This would help learners advance in tandem with the requirement that short-term programs articulate into longer-term educational pathways.

Engage with the labor market to create safeguards and promote job quality. In a world where short-term programs for low-wage jobs are more broadly funded, it’s possible that the labor market could end up flooded with workers who have the skills for these jobs. That could, in turn, remove the incentive for employers to improve the quality of the jobs themselves, instead allowing them to cycle through workers, firm in the knowledge that more will be coming via the training pipeline.

To address this, programs that do not have high earnings potential could have additional requirements—for instance, not only must they lead to an educational pathway, but they must show that they are engaged with employers to both promote job quality and avoid creating imbalances in the labor supply.

Solving a complex policy problem requires a complex solution. Directly engaging with underlying labor market issues will provide more clarity and lead to solutions for addressing the social mobility needs of learners who might otherwise get lost in the low-wage workforce. Doing otherwise simply confuses job quality with education quality.

Michelle Van Noy is director of the Education and Employment Research Center at Rutgers University’s School of Management and Labor Relations, which focuses on better understanding how education intersects with the labor market.

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