The increasing burden of paying for all types of postsecondary education has driven a broader conversation on college affordability, including widespread consideration of proposals for “tuition-free college” featured in major news outlets and the higher education trade press. One such proposal, President Obama’s America’s College Promise, is designed to support students through the completion of an associate’s degree, with the intent that students will use that schooling as a stepping stone to a bachelor’s degree. However, many students plan to earn one or more sub-associate credentials leading up to an associate’s degree through workforce training; such short-term certificates are the fastest growing segment in postsecondary education. How can these programs be made affordable? And where do these students currently turn for help in paying for their postsecondary coursework?
Many workforce training programs explicitly target low-income and low-skilled individuals—or are implicitly appealing to these individuals—because of the job opportunities these programs provide through their connections with employers. Unfortunately, neither student financial aid nor any other sources students and institutions leverage commonly cover all costs. Besides overall levels of available aid being too low, in many cases the variety of funding sources makes coordination too difficult to manage.
As a result, students confronted with the intimidating challenge of paying for training are often led to an inelegant ‘spaghetti solution.’ That is, they locate multiple potential funding sources and throw them at the costs of college to see what sticks. Perhaps not surprisingly, students without a high school diploma or equivalency face the greatest challenges in obtaining resources to pay for training offered by postsecondary education institutions.
The spaghetti solution is frequently unsuccessful, as evidenced by the high rates of unmet financial need, particularly among low-income students. The decades-long history of federal investment in community college-based workforce training programs is likely to be continued in some form after the end of current federal workforce training investments. Any new initiatives must draw lessons from the recent past and consider the policy reforms we present in this paper, in order to address the lack of dedicated funding for education and training, and the resulting unmet need.
We recommend the following policy changes:
Widely scale up the not-yet-operational federal America’s Promise Grants, a U.S. Department of Labor program offering funding for tuition-free college programs that include sector partnerships among community colleges, employers, and the workforce system.
Restore the year-round availability of Pell Grants to mitigate the negative effects of aid disbursement timing.
Support colleges’ widespread promotion of the HEA’s Ability to Benefit provision of student aid to participants in a career pathway who lack a high-school diploma or equivalent. Institutions should be given greater certainty about the definition of an “eligible career pathway program” for this purpose.