On September 26th, 2019, Senator Alexander (R-TN), Chairman of the Senate HELP Committee, introduced the Student Aid Improvement Act of 2019 (S. 2557). In addition to permanently preserving funding for Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), Tribally Controlled Colleges and Universities (TCUs), and other Minority-Serving Institutions (MSIs), the bill contains piecemeal Higher Education Act related provisions, including those that would extend Pell grant eligibility to students enrolled in short-term programs, reinstate Pell grant eligibility to incarcerated students, simplify the FAFSA application process and slightly increase the maximum Pell grant award.
While comprehensive HEA reauthorization is a legislative priority shared by key policymakers in the House and Senate as well as the White House, the Student Aid Improvement Act has been met with skepticism, as it ties recently expired MSI funding to narrow HEA reauthorization language. Senate HELP Committee Ranking Member, Patty Murray (D-WA), has not agreed to consider S. 2557 and has instead called for a clean passage of the FUTURE Act (H.R. 2486), a bipartisan bill unanimously approved by the House of Representatives on September 17th, which would extend funding for MSIs through FY 2021, and does not include the piecemeal HEA related provisions included in Sen. Alexander’s bill.
Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA-03), Chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee has also urged the Senate to take up the FUTURE Act in its current form, rather than tying it to HEA reauthorization language. Chairman Scott plans to introduce a comprehensive HEA reauthorization bill this month for consideration by the Education and Labor Committee.
Chairman Alexander, a former Department of Education Secretary, is set to retire from the Senate at the end of this Congress and has been vocal about his desire to pass HEA legislation before the end of his term. While National Skills Coalition enthusiastically supports modernizing federal postsecondary policies so that they work for today’s students, the Student Aid Improvement Act, in its current form, misses the mark on quality assurance, data transparency and other NSC postsecondary policy priorities.
The Student Aid Improvement Act would:
Extend Federal Pell grants to students enrolled in short-term education and training programs, but stops short of key provisions found in bipartisan JOBS Act
Under the Student Aid Improvement Act, students enrolled in short-term education or training programs at any institution of higher education, including private, for-profit institutions would qualify for a Pell grant, so long as the program was at least 150 clock hours over 8 weeks of instruction. This provision would be a significant change to current law, which limits Pell eligibility to students enrolled in programs that are at least 600 clock hours over 15 weeks of instruction.
While NSC is encouraged by the Chairman’s intent to include students in short-term programs in Pell grant eligibility, the language in the Student Aid Improvement Act differs significantly from the NSC-supported JOBS Act (S. 839, H.R. 3497) —a bipartisan, bicameral measure which would thoughtfully adjust Pell-eligibility parameters to better meet the needs of today’s students. The JOBS Act, which is led by Senators Kaine (D-VA) and Portman (R-OH) as well as Representatives Richmond (D-LA-02), Levin (D-MI-09), Horsford (D-NV-04), Gonzalez (R-OH-16), Herrera Beutler (R-WA-03), and Katko (R-NY-24), would also extend Pell eligibility to short-term programs that are at least 150 clock hours over 8 weeks, but does so within a strong quality assurance framework that aims to shield students from poor-performing programs.
The JOBS Act has over 55 House and Senate co-sponsors from both sides of the aisle and has also been included in the President’s FY19 and FY20 budget requests. Additionally, this bipartisan bill, which is one of four policy priorities that make up NSC’s Community College Compact, is strongly supported by approximately 1/3 of all state community and technical college systems as well as small and mid-size business leaders and likely 2020 voters.
The JOBS Act includes important provisions missing from the Student Aid Improvement Act. The JOBS Act would:
Limit Pell grant eligibility to short-term programs that are offered at public, non-profit institutions. The bipartisan JOBS Act limits institutional participation to public, non-profit institutions, while the Chairman’s bill allows all IHEs to participate—including private, for-profit institutions. As an organization that works closely with community and technical college leaders across the U.S., we strongly believe in their dedication to student protection and quality assurance and urge the Chairman to limit short-term Pell eligibility to public institutions.
Require participating institutions to be on the WIOA Eligible Training Provider List. Under the JOBS Act, in order for public institutions to offer Pell grants to students attending short-term programs, they must be on their state’s WIOA Eligible Training Provider List (ETPL). Under WIOA, eligible training providers are responsible for reporting outcomes data related to the individuals they serve on a yearly basis to the Department of Labor, allowing state and federal policymakers, program participants and training providers to gain insight into the effectiveness of these programs.
While Chairman Alexander’s bill requires participating institutions to demonstrate outcomes in line with the WIOA common indicator framework, it does not require institutions to be on their state’s eligible training provider list. This approach to outcomes reporting lacks specificity around oversight and enforcement responsibility, leaving interpretation to the Education Department should the Chairman’s bill become law.
Direct accreditors to adopt a process for evaluating newly eligible short-term programs. As an additional quality assurance mechanism for newly Pell-eligible programs, the JOBS Act sets forth a framework that accreditors can use to evaluate short-term education and training programs for content and quality. The Chairman’s bill does not clearly define the role of accreditors in evaluating short-term programs.
Require participating institutions to adopt articulation agreement language. The JOBS Act directs participating institutions to put articulation agreements in place for students enrolled in short-term programs. This provision will help ensure that students who wish to continue in a longer-term certificate or degree pathway upon completion of their short-term program will not face additional roadblocks to success. The Student Aid Improvement Act does not contain articulation language.
In addition to expanding Pell to short-term programs, the Student Aid Improvement Act includes a range of legislative priorities with varying degrees of bipartisan support in the Senate, including:
Extension of Pell grants to incarcerated students eligible for parole
More than 20 years ago, the federal government placed a ban on access to Pell grants for incarcerated individuals. However, in 2015, the Obama Administration announced the Second Chance Pell pilot program, which restored Pell eligibility for an estimated 12,000 students in more than 100 correctional facilities. This initiative has led to a groundswell of bipartisan support among policymakers, the current Administration and education and workforce advocates for the expansion of Second Chance Pell.
Notably, a comprehensive publication recently released by NSC entitled “The Roadmap for Racial Equity: An imperative for workforce development advocates,” highlights the role of workforce training and education in addressing racial employment, income and wealth disparities and urges Congress to permanently restore Pell grant eligibility for incarcerated individuals.
The Student Aid Improvement Act aims to address this issue by restoring grant aid for incarcerated students who are eligible for parole but would not lift the ban for all incarcerated individuals.
Simplification of the FAFSA application and eligibility process
Simplifying the process for students filling out the FAFSA—a form completed by current and prospective college students to determine their eligibility for federal student aid—has been a long-standing priority of Chairman Alexander’s. The Student Aid Improvement Act reduces the number of questions on the FAFSA from 108 to 17-30 and restructures the needs analysis formula for students by replacing Expected Family Contribution (EFC) with a simplified Student Aid Index, which would qualify students for Pell eligibility by considering their family size and adjusted gross income.
The Chairman’s bill would also auto-approve applicants for maximum Pell Grants if they qualify for means-tested benefits, such as SNAP, TANF or Medicaid, or if they are not required by the IRS to file a tax return as a result of their income level. The Student Aid Improvement Act also includes income protection allowance tables for students, student parents, and parents of students, which will allow more individuals to qualify for federal aid.
Slight increase for maximum Pell grant awards
The Chairman’s bill also contains a $20 increase to the maximum Pell grant award. While Pell grant increases of any amount are largely welcomed by students and advocates, many feel this small change will do little to help students cover the rising cost of education. A comprehensive reauthorization of the Higher Education Act would make a meaningful investment in the Pell grant program a stronger possibility.
Notably, to garner more support for the Student Aid Improvement Act before it is considered on the Senate floor, Chairman Alexander has signaled his intent to attach additional bipartisan priorities to the bill, including the College Transparency Act (S.800, H.R. 1766). The College Transparency Act, which is also a component of NSC’s Community College Compact would arm students, employers, educators and parents with the data they need to make informed decisions regarding education and training. It is currently being led by Senators Warren (D-MA) and Cassidy (R-LA), as well as Representatives Krishnamoorthi (D-IL-08) and Mitchell (R-MI-10).
While NSC sees the introduction of the Student Aid Improvement Act as a step toward improving federal higher education policy, we urge House and Senate leadership to work together to pass thoughtful, comprehensive postsecondary legislation that protects students and ensures their success in today’s economy.