The Effects of Expanding Pell Grant Eligibility for Short Occupational Training Programs: Results from the Experimental Sites Initiative

The Effects of Expanding Pell Grant Eligibility for Short Occupational Training Programs: Results from the Experimental Sites Initiative

NCEE 2021–001
Published: Dec 15, 2020
Publisher: Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences, National Center for Education Evaluation and Regional Assistance

Jaime Thomas

Andrew Wiegand

Leela Hebbar

This report presents findings from a study of two experimental expansions to Pell Grant eligibility piloted between 2012 and 2017 to help in the recovery from the Great Recession. In both experiments, students had to meet the Pell Grant income criteria, to be un- or underemployed, and intend to enroll in a short occupational program leading to a certificate or credential aligned with local or regional workforce needs. Certain Pell Grant rules were waived for the 46 schools that volunteered and were approved to participate, mostly public two-year colleges. The study examined whether these pilots increased enrollment in and completion of postsecondary programs for the 2,700 students the schools identified as eligible for the experiments. The students were randomly assigned either to be offered or not offered experimental Pell Grant funds in their financial aid award packages, and their outcomes were compared 10 to 30 months later to determine the effectiveness of the experiments.

Key findings include:

  • Offering Pell Grants for short occupational programs to low-income students with a bachelor’s degree increased program enrollment and completion by about 20 percentage points. Under normal Pell Grant rules, student 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 have to have a minimum of 600 hours of instruction over 15 weeks. But under this experiment, students could obtain and use Pell Grants for programs lasting as little as 8 weeks.

Strategies to help displaced workers and low-income adults earn credentials with the potential to improve their job prospects quickly may be of particular interest now, given the changing economic conditions due to the coronavirus pandemic. The labor market returns from the two experiments and how these compare to the cost of expanding Pell Grant eligibility—on average about $1,800 per student in this study—remain important open questions for the future.


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