If you are selling education, the most effective way to get a low-income adult to enroll is to convince them that a particular program is the right fit for their background and needs, and that it’s a speedy route to rejoining the workforce with a decent income. Without crossing the line into a promise or falsehood, give them the impression that this program leads to a good job.

Clinching the deal is made much easier if you can tell them that tuition is covered by Uncle Sam: that third-party payer magically sets aside the question of whether the program is worth the money while also establishing credibility, sending the message—misleading, but powerful—that the program meets some government-approved minimum level of quality and effectiveness.

If the training is well-suited to the student, if the price is fair, and if the job potential is real, then the sales pitch is not problematic.

But those are big ifs, controlled largely by the college and not the student. In practice, federal financial aid programs have a sorry history when it comes to career-focused programs, particularly when they are run to turn a profit for college owners or as a way for a nonprofit or public college to subsidize its core programs. When profit is the goal, researchers have found, federal aid pumps up the price 78 percent on average. Quality suffers, and recruiters press prospects to enroll even when they are not ready or not right for the training.

A proposal advancing in Congress could make this problem worse by opening up the spigot of federal Pell Grant funding to very short-term job training programs. These narrowly focused credential programs, sometimes labeled as bootcamps, could “help Americans quickly enter or reenter the workforce,” according to its lead sponsor, Senator Tim Kaine (D-VA). Some job-training experts agree and are supporting legislation that would allow Pell Grants for programs as short as eight weeks, instead of the current minimum length of about one full-time semester (about fifteen weeks). Others argue, however, that short-term Pell will displace employer-provided training with no accountability while luring students to use their limited Pell Grant dollars on training for low-wage, dead-end jobs.

Both sides are right. Some students would benefit from short-term Pell, excelling in a program that gives them an entree into a decent job or further education. But the marketing and recruiting will also lead to many being attracted or diverted into pathways that go nowhere, leading to disillusionment and a waste of time, tax dollars, and limited Pell eligibility. Can a proposal be fashioned that minimizes the hazards? This commentary proposes an approach to consider.

The Danger of Short-Term Pell

I would not be worried if the plan was for Pell Grants to help students address their non-tuition expenses, such as child care, transportation, food, and rent. But advocates of short-term Pell want the money to go to tuition at prices that far exceed the actual cost of providing the education. Community college leaders are excited about short-term Pell because of its potential to ease budget strains in the rest of their institutions. Even more worrisome, for-profit companies are already angling to step in and market the programs for them, sharing in the spoils.

Other federal workforce programs already finance these types of programs, but advocates want short-term Pell instead because that type of federal financial aid is significantly larger and operates as an entitlement—that is, vouchers usable by anyone who is low-income. That shift to voucher funding may seem like a harmless change, but it fundamentally alters the entire program. Currently, the programs touted as industry-responsive are curated and developed, by necessity, with heavy involvement of industry and faculty, frequently with the financial involvement of the businesses.

In a non-voucher job training program, making sure that the courses are designed strategically for the needs of the local economy is integral. Also built into the process—because the program cannot survive without business support—is ensuring the courses are taught by appropriate experts, and the program is enrolling students well-suited for the training and the job. If employers aren’t getting well-trained hires, they stop supporting the program.

The role of employers and institutions having skin in the game is like the role of a doctor in prescribing medicine. An educational program is not good or bad in a vacuum. It needs to be fit to the purpose, and worth the price. The prospective student, like a patient, frequently does not know enough to assess whether a course of action is likely to pay off for them given their own situation. Employers and the oversight of local public funds provide accountability, helping to keep low-value or predatory programs from flourishing.

The shift to vouchers destroys that critical accountability, making the sales process to prospective students the sole driver of program creation and funding. The revised goal—revenue for the school—is a powerful driver of expansion but lacks guardrails, allowing the program to morph in ways that no longer have quality and students’ interests at the core.

Short-term Pell, as currently proposed, will unmoor many programs from their anchor of accountability for value, spurring the creation and rapid expansion of programs built to take advantage of the federal money.

Short-term Pell, as currently proposed, will unmoor many programs from their anchor of accountability for value, spurring the creation and rapid expansion of programs built to take advantage of the federal money. Rather than assessing whether the program still deserves an investment of state employer dollars, the program will be seen as a source of money for other programs. Once that happens it will be extremely difficult, politically, to rein in the expansion and ensure quality and value.

The scheme may sound familiar: it’s very similar to colleges running overpriced appendage programs, fueled by federal financial aid and aided by for-profit companies. At four-year colleges, that is the model that has caused the explosion of enrollment and student debt at online masters and some doctoral programs.

Pell-fueled, unchecked expansion of very short-term programs threatens to raise tuition prices, undermine quality, and divert many students from other, more promising options that lack the marketing sophistication that the for-profit companies will bring with their share of the federal money. Unless some type of quality anchor is built in from the start, the plan will fail students while financing lobbyists to keep the money flowing nonetheless.

If Short-Term Pell Is Going To Happen, Here’s What It Needs

The best short-term, job-specific training is a program that is financed at least in part by an employer who hopes to hire, or has already hired, the program’s students. For more general skills and academic programs, the community college, publicly funded, is well situated to identify needs and priorities for potential beneficiaries in their service area. Federal support, like that proposed by the Biden administration, can help bolster and stabilize that funding. That should be Congress’s priority, not short-term Pell.

The best short-term, job-specific training is a program that is financed at least in part by an employer who hopes to hire, or has already hired, the program’s students.

But if short-term Pell does make progress through Congress, it must include some measure to prevent it from leading to the rapid growth of overpriced, low-quality programs. Job placement rates are notoriously unreliable. Independently analyzed earnings data about participants must be included in the plan. However, there is significant time lag with those earnings data, and predictable disputes about counterfactuals (“What would have happened without the program?”) and whether the program has changed since the measurement.

To better preserve quality and value, I recommend adding a voucher version of a matching-funds requirement, rewarding continued demonstration of employer, private, and public financial support. College leaders have pointed out to me that a simple current-year match is not workable because the makeup of the enrolled students—in particular, whether they will apply for and get federal aid—is not known until the program is over. So the guardrail would be forward-going but based on the prior cohorts.

Here is how the voucher should be structured:

  • A program at a community college is eligible for short-term Pell during a particular year if the total student enrollment in the program is no more than double the total number of non-federally-funded students paying tuition independently or from employers in one of the two most recent years.
  • Alternatively, a program is eligible if the total tuition charges are no more than double the instructional and post-enrollment student support expenses in one of the two most recent years.

In other words, institutions must show either that employers are willing to pay the tuition price for at least half the students (a measure of fair price), or that at least half of tuition is for educating the student (a different value measure). Programs can grow when there is ongoing demonstration of employer or community financial support: a program that previously received no federal support could double in size in the first year of short-term Pell availability. It could grow more each year as long as it continues to show more than 50 percent non-federal support.

Short-term job training programs are best expanded through the workforce training system, and by federal support for free community college. If short-term Pell continues to gain political momentum, though, lawmakers must include protections so that students and tax dollars are not diverted in ways that are unproductive for communities and damaging to vulnerable populations.