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Are Short-Term Pell Grants a Good Idea?

As workers without postsecondary education experience economic stagnation, policymakers are seeking ways to broaden access to higher education. One suggestion gaining support among legislators is to expand eligibility for Pell Grants to include short-term vocational programs lasting less than the current minimum of 600 clock hours or 16 weeks. Proponents believe that expanding Pell to these shorter programs would allow more students to obtain credentials that improve earnings, but critics contend that the outcomes produced by these programs vary substantially and that a Pell expansion could waste taxpayer dollars on programs that leave students without significant gains.

Although the Department of Education conducted an experimental pilot to evaluate the impact of expanding Pell Grant eligibility to short-term vocational programs, it did not measure post-completion outcomes, it examined a nonrepresentative sample of schools and students, and it did not consider the potential institutional responses to a Pell Grant expansion. In this paper, we survey the existing evidence on short-term vocational programs and propose a more robust experimental pilot to provide policymakers with a comprehensive picture of the costs and benefits of a Pell expansion and to calibrate potential accountability measures that will ensure students are receiving value from those programs that receive funding.

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