adult learners

Opinion: The Pell Grant no longer reflects the needs of today’s learners. Congress can change that.  

Passage of short-term financial aid bill could help millions of working, military-affiliated, and older learners

The demographics of higher education are shifting. Today, more than one-third of college undergraduates are over 25. These older students are far more likely to work while they are enrolled than traditional-aged learners. They’re more likely to serve or have serve in the military. Many are parents. And they are seeking the most direct and efficient paths to a credential that can move their careers and families forward. 

As leaders of institutions designed to serve these kinds of students, we have seen firsthand the myriad financial and time constraints they face on the way to a degree. Part of the challenge: Our federal financial aid system has failed to keep pace with the evolving needs of learners. 

The Pell Grant, for instance, has long acted as a lifeline to millions of students. Its impact is increasingly constrained, however, by a requirement that the funds can only be used for academic programs lasting 15 weeks or longer. This restriction effectively bars students from engaging in the precise types of short-term training and educational programs that offer the flexibility and speed many require to quickly earn credentials of value. 

Late last year, lawmakers introduced bipartisan legislation that would begin to address this disconnect by expanding Pell to include short-term programs. The proposed changes represent a long overdue adjustment to the nation’s approach to funding postsecondary opportunities. 

The shift is essential for adapting to the demands of the modern workforce and the needs of learners. Legislators should swiftly pass this bill and help millions of working, military-affiliated, and other older learners access the resources they need to accelerate their paths to career advancement and economic security.

Across the country, employers are struggling to find qualified employees. Workers, meanwhile, are looking to gain the skills and credentials they need to pursue careers in these high-demand fields. But traditional postsecondary routes are rarely built with the emerging majority of nontraditional learners in mind.

Many of these students balance their studies with full-time jobs, parenting, and other personal commitments. The typical academic calendar is designed for younger, full-time, residential students, not for working parents, middle-aged learners looking to switch careers, or military members preparing for civilian life. 

Short-term programs, on the other hand, offer students ways to acquire relevant skills and credentials in formats that more easily accommodate their busy schedules, financial limitations, and conflicting responsibilities. Rather than pause their careers for years to earn a bachelor’s degree, for instance, learners can earn an industry-vetted credential in a matter of weeks and get straight to work. Instead of driving to evening classes several times per week for an entire semester, they can enroll in accelerated online courses that allow them to learn wherever and whenever is most convenient while quickly moving through a program. 

These options offer greater flexibility and choice for students working full-time jobs, juggling family responsibilities, or living in remote areas. They also dramatically decrease the time required to obtain a credential of value. This expediency not only holds immense promise for students but also for ensuring that postsecondary education more closely aligns with the immediate demands of the workforce. The result is a more adaptive and responsive relationship between higher education and a rapidly evolving labor market. 

States are increasingly recognizing the value of these programs, having now dedicated nearly $4 billion to short-term credential initiatives. Early research shows the investments are paying off. In Illinois, for example, the state’s accelerated training program – the Workforce Equity Initiative – boasts a 67% employment rate

For many students, however, these critical learning opportunities are still largely locked behind a financial barrier. The learners who stand to gain the most from short-term programs are also more likely to require financial support. Indeed, those who pursue short-term credentials are disproportionately students of color or from low-income backgrounds. Without the means to pay for these programs, their flexibility and relevancy count for very little. For these students, access to Pell Grants remains essential. 

After years of extensive debate and discussion, lawmakers have never been closer to making this meaningful change a reality. By extending Pell to cover short-term programs, they can better align postsecondary education with both the needs of learners and the real-world demands of the workforce.

It’s time to reimagine our system of postsecondary learning so that it reflects the complex realities of today’s students and the increasingly dynamic nature of our nation’s economy. 

Dr. Mark D. Milliron is the president and CEO of National University. Dr. Richard Rhodes is president of Texas A&M University-Central Texas.

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