Should Short-Term, Online Programs Get Pell Grants?

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Pexels Julia M Cameron 4144221As part of the Bipartisan Innovation Act, Congress is weighing an amendment to expand Pell Grant eligibility to short-term programs—or those as short as eight weeks and no longer than 15 weeks. Yet the amendment leaves out online, short-term programs, fueling debate around what that may mean for low-income students.

“These shorter programs are often for nontraditional, working, and older students—and those are the students who have the least amount of time available,” said Dr. Gregory Fowler, president of the University of Maryland Global Campus (UMGC), an online public university. “We’re trying to think about people who want to do programs that can fit their schedules to open doors for them.”

Last month, Fowler joined a group of higher education and business leaders in signing a letter to members of Congress, calling for including online education institutions in the Pell Grant expansion to short-term programs.

Another one of the signatories, Scott Pulsipher, president of Western Governors University (WGU), which is a private, nonprofit, online higher education institution, noted that broadening Pell to short-term programs is a key step toward diversity, equity, and inclusion. Many people who seek short-term programs are students of color. But to Pulsipher, the proposed Pell expansion does not go far enough.

“This odd exclusion of online-only programs seems completely out of step with reality,” he said, noting a Northeastern University study published in December 2021 that found 71% of C-suite executives stated they perceived an online credential as “either generally equivalent or higher quality when compared to one completed in-person.”

Yet some say that leaving online programs out of Pell is a guardrail, especially given the history of many for-profit colleges using federal funds for predatory practices. Such critics argue that bringing Pell eligibility to online, short-term programs, even when run by nonprofits, could still risk putting federal dollars behind an education of potentially lower quality and lower value.

"I do acknowledge that the two-year and four-year routes are not for everyone, but these guardrails to omit online programs and for-profits are there to eliminate bad actors," said Dr. Monique Ositelu, senior policy analyst for higher education at New America, a public policy think tank.

Ositelu has researched short-term programs that last 15 weeks or fewer. Largely due to data limitations, this research did not disaggregate programs based on if they were in-person, hybrid, or online-only. This New America analysis found stark racial and gender inequities in earnings upon completing a short-term program.

When Black and Latino/Latina students finish a short-term certificate, for example, they make up to $20,000 less in median yearly earnings than white students with a similar credential. In addition, the analysis found that the typical annual earnings for over half of graduates who are working are less than $30,000.

“About 7 in 10 participants of short-term programs in the U.S. are at the sub-baccalaureate level—and for many of these participants, this is the highest level of education they receive,” said Ositelu. “We do understand that for the average student, specifically students of color, very short-term programs are not a vehicle for economic mobility."

However, there remains scarce research on the outcomes of short-term programs, including on specifically online, short-term programs. Fowler of UMGC noted as well that not all online programs are the same—and some are better than others.

“I get the idea of wanting to make sure the students have high-quality experiences,” he said. “But those of us who have been doing online education for decades know there are ways to incorporate that quality into the online learning structure to ensure you don’t have a big rush of people trying to take advantage of big revenue.”

It is unclear if Congress will reconsider this exclusion, either by taking the exclusion out altogether or negotiating other guardrails for online, short-term programs. And to Ed Klonoski, president of Charter Oak College, a public online college in Connecticut, and one of the letter’s signatories alongside Fowler, there is another question in this debate around expanding Pell eligibility.

“If you’re going to encourage people to do these shorter programs with Pell Grants, but only for in-person programs, then that’s just not fair,” he said. “There is no quality difference between online and in-person, so if you want to include shorter-term programs for Pell, you need to be fair and include online as well.”

Rebecca Kelliher can be reached at rkelliher@diverseeducation.com.