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The Ongoing Debate: Should Federal Aid Cover Short-Term Credentials

July 16, 2021

At a Glance

In Episode 3 of the JFF podcast When Policy Meets Practice, community college leaders from Louisiana and Virginia discuss the success of statewide programs that offer financial support for short-term credential programs.

Taylor Maag

For years, there has been debate over expanding federal financial aid, specifically Pell Grants, to cover short-term credential programs. Advocates argue that the status quo is not working for students. They say we need more rapid, flexible options that get people ready for in-demand job opportunities quickly. Critics contend that short-term nondegree programs don’t help workers advance beyond static jobs that pay low wages, specifically harming people of color and people from low-income backgrounds.

The latest episode of JFF’s new podcast, When Policy Meets Practice, dives into this debate and offers examples of state programs for policymakers to consider as they look for effective ways to expand high-quality short-term options.

Host Paul Fain explores this issue with two community college leaders who are members of JFF’s Policy Leadership Trust: Monty Sullivan, president of the Louisiana Community and Technical College System, and Anne Kress, president of Northern Virginia Community College.

In their conversations with Paul, Monty and Anne share their experiences working in states with policies supporting short-term postsecondary education programs and the outcomes they’ve seen. At the end of the episode JFF’s Lexi Barrett and Taylor Maag join Paul for a wrap-up conversation to put the issues in perspective.

Monty kicks off the episode talking about the need for postsecondary education to evolve to meet the needs of today’s students.

Postsecondary Education Must Evolve

Monty kicks off the episode talking about the need for postsecondary education to evolve to meet the needs of today’s students. He reports that there are 1.1 million working-age adults with a high school diploma or less in Louisiana, and these individuals are looking for postsecondary programs that not only enable them to prepare for good jobs quickly, but also give them opportunities to continue their educations. To respond to that need, this past year Louisiana Governor John Bel Edwards used federal stimulus dollars to start a program called Reboot Your Careers, which provides financial assistance for shorter-term postsecondary courses.

Meanwhile, Anne outlines Virginia’s FastForward initiative, a statewide short-term credential program that has been around since 2016. She says that both students and employers feel there is a need for short-term education options, and adds that employers all over the state are interested and engaged in FastForward to ensure that credential programs have value. Because the Commonwealth has had success scaling this work, Anne knows similar programs can succeed across the country.

Addressing Equity

Monty and Anne don’t shy away from the equity conversation, either. They both raise concerns about the possibility that gaps in postsecondary attainment and employment outcomes will persist among various demographic groups if nothing is done. In their states, they say, limiting financial aid to traditional postsecondary programs pushes people into longer-term education options, which may not be good fits for many individuals and families.

Anne points out that the diversity of students enrolling in postsecondary programs increased drastically when the state offered tuition assistance for eligible FastForward participants. Virginia also provided supports to students who may have otherwise faced barriers to participation. As a result, FastForward has seen impressive outcomes: Program completion rates have reached 90 percent, and the average wage increase for all students who complete programs is 24 percent—28 percent for individuals from low-income backgrounds.

[Monty and Anne] both raise concerns about the possibility that gaps in postsecondary attainment and employment outcomes will persist.

Recommendations From the Policy Leadership Trust

To ensure that our postsecondary education system is modernizing to better meet the needs of today’s students, JFF’s Policy Leadership Trust has developed practitioner-informed policy design principles for short-term credential programs. Recommendations focus on how to ensure the quality of these programs, how to make data more aligned and accessible, and how to secure funding for institutions and students. We will release these recommendation on July 26, and we hope policymakers will look at them for guidance as they develop strategies to expand access to high-quality short-term credential programs that lead to equitable outcomes for students.

How to Listen to Episode 3 of When Policy Meets Practice

Tune in to the third episode of JFF’s When Policy Meets Practice podcast to hear Paul Fain talk with Monty Sullivan, Anne Kress, and JFF’s Lexi Barrett and Taylor Maag about short-term credential programs. The episode is now available on your favorite podcast platforms using, using this shortcut.

You can find each episode in the Jobs for the Future feed in your favorite podcast app starting at 5:00 a.m. ET every other Monday. Be on the lookout for Episode 4, which will be available starting August 2. It features a conversation about ways in which federal and state policy can help—rather than impede—progress in closing equity gaps and achieving racial justice.

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