Online Short-Term Pell Raises Concerns Further About Quality and Value

Blog Post
Dec. 14, 2022

The push to expand Pell Grant eligibility to very-short-term programs already goes against the grain of existing research which shows poor outcomes in terms of earnings and employment in existing short-term programs. Even more concerning is the push from some in higher education and industry to also include online programs among those very-short-term programs. Short-term Pell is risky enough for students and taxpayers, so policymakers should think twice before opening up the spigot of federal funds to even more untested programs. Doing so could invite predatory actors, but there are serious quality issues even for those with good intentions.

Under current law, job training programs must be at least 15 weeks long and provide at least 600 “clock hours” of training in order to be eligible for students to use federal Pell Grant dollars to enroll in them. Programs must be for college credit, which means they are also subject to review by accreditors. Short-term Pell proposals would alter those eligibility standards, extending eligibility to programs as short as eight weeks providing as few as 150 clock hours, some of which do not provide any college credit or require any college-level learning.

Short-term Pell would be a drastic shift in how the Pell program operates, no doubt. And given the incredibly short amount of time, on top of the previously mentioned concerns with existing programs, many believe it is difficult to provide a sufficient amount of quality training. Expanding eligibility to such short programs provided entirely online raises even more concerns.

The Lackluster Quality and Value of Online Education

Online education is a challenging modality for students to learn in, generally, and delivering it in a highly-effective way is even harder. Research comparing in-person and online learning shows that online students tend to have lower grades and are less likely to remain enrolled and take fewer credits if they do re-enroll. This is a particularly concerning finding given that short-term Pell advocates preach the hope of a “stackable” credential (though it’s worth noting that research shows that short-term, “stackable” credentials rarely stack and yield minimal gains in wages).

Studies of community and technical colleges—where most short-term Pell programs would be offered—echo these findings. Scholars analyzing statewide systems found that students who take online courses do worse than students in comparable face-to-face classes and are less likely to complete their program. Outcomes were worse for marginalized students, leading the authors of one study to conclude that, “the continued expansion of online learning could strengthen, rather than ameliorate, educational inequity.” And these studies look at students who take only some of their classes online, not their entire program. The research broadly shows that outcomes are worse for the Black, brown, and low-income students who are most likely to receive a Pell Grant.

These disparities might be at least partially attributable to the fact that spending on student instruction for online programs is actually lower than in-person instruction, despite proponents touting it as more affordable due to fewer brick and mortar expenses. In many cases, online students are actually paying more and getting less.

Students have said as much. Surveys show that students are often dissatisfied with online learning, with 69 percent reporting that in-person education was more effective than online. Some evidence suggests that employers also value online education less with studies showing that applicants with an online degree were less likely to receive a callback from employers.

Online Training Doesn’t Meet the Needs of Hands-On Occupations or of Students

Online programs just don’t make sense for the kinds of hands-on programs that short-term Pell is supposed to provide in order to help individuals access job-training opportunities. These are the types of training that are typically funded by workforce dollars. Imagine a truck driver, a welder, or even the phlebotomist taking your blood at a lab learning how to do their job entirely online.

And while it’s possible to pair hands-on training with online learning, that isn’t what advocates are pushing and even that is easier said than done. For example, one evaluation of programs funded by federal workforce dollars reported that the hands-on complement to the online components was often missing. One staff member put it simply, saying, “You know, it’s massage therapy. It’s medical assistant. It’s any of these trainings that Title I is funding. How do you teach somebody to be a beautician or to do nails or dog grooming [remotely]? How do you teach anybody to do a training if you can’t have them doing something in person?”

New America conducted focus groups of adults with short-term credentials that highlighted this issue. The former students explained how essential it was to receive hands-on training given the nature of their curricula, but online education made it difficult. One student explained how frustrating their experience was, saying “the majority [of students] said we were not getting what we want out of the class. We need hands-on experience.”

Even the few job-training programs that could make sense being delivered fully online have plenty of challenges. An evaluation of a job training program with an IT pathway mentioned the potential benefits of online instruction, but called the fully online program “potentially concerning.” The reason why is important, especially in the context of short-term Pell. It said, online “instruction might not have been the most effective for a vulnerable population that might have multiple competing demands and limited professional experience. Blended approaches to instruction might be a better option because they have the potential to address the issues of nontraditional students with unique needs during the part of instruction that occurs in class.”

Understandably, advocates cite the need for flexibility, especially for disadvantaged students, due to work schedules, transit barriers, child care needs, and more. But flexibility doesn’t address those issues on its own. Many of those barriers will still exist, as will inequitable broadband access which makes online education even more difficult. In fact, evidence shows that the most effective job training includes wraparound supports for individuals. As one economist explained, the most promising training programs are the ones offering some combination of education and training, direct ties to employers or industries that provide well-paying jobs, and a range of services and supports, including child care and transportation.

Counter to the promise that very short online job training programs could provide the flexibility and quality training vulnerable individuals need to find a good job, making online programs eligible just heightens the equity concerns of enacting short-term Pell. If policymakers want to experiment with short-term Pell, they should proceed with caution and maintain the prohibition on online programs. We know from the long history of experimenting with both online higher education and short-term programs that it’s difficult to undo massive expansions, even when outcomes are worse for the most vulnerable students.

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Federal Education Legislation Higher Education Access and Affordability Higher Education Accountability & Consumer Protection Federal Student Aid