Expanding Pell Grants for Short-Term Occupational Training Improved Postsecondary Enrollment and Completion for Low-Income Students

Expanding Pell Grants for Short-Term Occupational Training Improved Postsecondary Enrollment and Completion for Low-Income Students

Dec 15, 2020
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Each year, federal Pell Grants help millions of low-income students pay for postsecondary education. Expanding Pell Grant eligibility to encourage more short-term occupational training improved postsecondary enrollment and completion for low-income students, according to a new study authored by Mathematica and Social Policy Research Associates for the Institute of Education Sciences. These findings may be of interest now, given the impact of coronavirus on the economy and the need for strategies to help displaced workers and low-income adults earn credentials to potentially improve their job prospects.

The findings are based on a study of two experimental expansions to Pell Grant eligibility piloted between 2012 and 2017 to help displaced workers in the recovery from the Great Recession. In both experiments, students had to meet the Pell Grant income criteria and intend to enroll in a short occupational program leading to a certificate or credential aligned with local or regional workforce needs. The average Pell amount disbursed was $1,800 per student. Key findings include:

  • Offering Pell Grants to students with a bachelor’s degree increased program enrollment and completion by about 20 percentage points. Under normal Pell Grant rules, students who already have such a degree are not eligible for these grants. To use the experimental Pell Grants, students had to enroll in a short-term occupational training programs lasting up to one year, or two years if pursued part-time.
  • Offering Pell Grants for very short-term occupational training programs increased program enrollment and completion by about 10 percentage points. Normally, programs must have a minimum of 600 hours of instruction over 15 weeks to be eligible for Pell Grants. But under this experiment, students could obtain and use Pell Grants for programs lasting as little as 8 weeks.

These Pell Grant eligibility rules were waived for the 46 schools, mostly public two-year colleges, that volunteered and were approved to participate. The study examined whether the pilots increased enrollment in and completion of postsecondary programs among the 2,700 students eligible for the experiments. The study randomly assigned students either to be offered or not offered experimental Pell Grant funds in their financial aid award packages, and then compared students’ outcomes 10 to 30 months later to determine the effectiveness of the changes in Pell Grant eligibility.

“This study shows that targeted expansion of Pell Grant eligibility can make a big difference in the educational attainment of low-income students. Whether these gains translate into longer-term benefits for students’ employment and earnings remains an important question for future research,” said Naihobe Gonzalez, co-author of the study.

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