At the end of March, I had the honor of representing the Community College of Aurora and providing testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Small Business Subcommittee on Innovation, Entrepreneurship, and Workforce Development. The hearing, titled “Skill, Upskill, and Reskill: Analyzing New Investments in Workforce Development,” provided an opportunity for our country’s leaders to hear firsthand from educators, researchers and business leaders regarding the impact of college, apprenticeships and federal funding on the future of America’s workforce and industry sustainability.
We discussed the possibility of allowing low-income students to use federal Pell Grants to pay for short workforce-training programs. As a president of a community college in a growing, competitive and evolving market, I believe it is critical that our community colleges are viewed as responsive and collaborative with industry partners. According to the Community College Research Center, federal Pell Grants currently can only be used for programs totaling at least 600 hours over 15 weeks. However, in this disruptive era of higher education, public demand for skills-based, short-term programs has skyrocketed. That’s why I’m in favor of making short-term programs eligible for Pell Grants.
In spite of free community college being removed from the now-stalled Build Back Better Bill, President Biden’s proposed 2023 fiscal plan could create new inroads for community colleges. The proposal would increase U.S. Department of Education funding to $88.3 billion, and it would also increase Pell Grant funding for qualifying students even further beyond the recent approval of Congress to increase the maximum Pell Grant award for low-income students by $400, to $6,895 for the 2022-2023 academic year, the largest year-to-year increase in more than a decade.
But there is still more that the government can do to help higher education and employers partner to support people who are trying to land better careers.
As I shared in my congressional testimony, the Community College of Aurora is using data and feedback provided by small businesses and large industries to re-envision and transform our student learning experiences. Intended to train displaced workers, non-traditional adult students, and first-time college students, these efforts seek to upskill or reskill people and help them to obtain industry-recognized credentials that align with in-demand, high-wage occupations.
Take for example our institution’s expanded program and facilities partnership with the BuildStrong Academy, a nonprofit that trains new construction workers. For the first time in 23 years, the Community College of Aurora is developing a new building, a 55,000-gross-square-foot facility that will serve as the headquarters of the BuildStrong Academy within the greater metro Denver area. With the growth of construction trades in the community, this new facility will enable students who are seeking a non-credit credential through BuildStrong to also travel along a supportive pathway toward for-credit credentialing through our community college. Such partnerships are imperative to our efforts to develop new opportunities for social and economic mobility for our students, 64 percent of whom are students of color.
Over the past 30 years, the community college sector has neither sufficiently responded to community needs nor effectively innovated the student experience, allowing for-profit institutions to gain market foothold in key programs where community colleges are best positioned to serve. On the other hand, that lack of responsiveness and innovation may be attributed to a much deeper issue: lack of appropriate funding. According to the Center for American Progress, community colleges receive $8,800 less in education revenue per student enrolled than four-year institutions, to the tune of a $78-billion gap as of 2020. Furthermore, according to Inside Higher Ed, states slashed financial support for two-year colleges by $457 million during the pandemic, while funding for four-year institutions declined by only $63 million. Such lack of financial support—and the current inability to award Pell Grant funding for very short-term workforce-based programs—prohibits community colleges from developing in-demand programs due to lack of student funding. Essentially, this widens the opportunity gap that disadvantages people from low-socioeconomic backgrounds and students of color. Meanwhile, for-profit enrollments continue to climb, loan debt continues to rise among students attending these institutions, promises about career prospects are broken, and students enrolled in for-profit, two-year programs default on their student loans at a five-year rate of 41 percent.
As America’s leaders meet to wrestle with the country’s issues, opportunities and threats, the “land of the free” must acknowledge the realities of its children’s rising debt. Community colleges are best positioned to meet the needs of the American workforce, partner with business and industry to evolve into the next era of industrialization and address rising student debt—but intervention at historic levels is necessary. Increased maximum Pell Grants are deeply appreciated and support the rising costs of education for low-income families. However, the game changer that is necessary now, more than ever, is the allowance of Pell funding for very short-term programs. It will power the next evolution of job training and placement through internships, externships, apprenticeships and sponsorship. Hopefully, our country’s leaders respond accordingly and give community colleges the green light.