Financial Aid Beyond the Traditional Degree: Can it Work?

Today, everyone from higher education leaders and practitioners, to employers, and, most importantly, students themselves is asking a critical question: How can higher education be more directly related to jobs students want? An answer in Washington, D.C. is to broaden our thinking of “higher education” to include shorter-term and more work-connected credentials in the landscape of programs where students can take their federal student aid.

But in order to ensure smooth and successful lifelong pathways for students, an expansion of federal recognition to new programs and providers will work best when students earn credentials that are portable and high-quality. By focusing on student outcomes – like completion, employment, equity, and value – programs and policies can ensure that short-term credentials further the Pell Grant program’s vital mission of advancing college access and connecting students to economic and social mobility.

The evolution of aid availability has the potential to fill a void, and in many ways is catching up to where many Americans are today. Today’s students are accessing postsecondary learning in many formats. One in four Americans currently has a non-degree credential or certificate. New online and competency-based providers are working with a growing number of students and beginning to show promising results connecting them to new credentials in growing industries. Military service members and adult and part-time learners are looking to seamlessly transfer existing skills and knowledge to college credit and the workplace.

In turn, federal policymakers are actively looking to address this need. Late last year the Committee on Education and the Workforce in the U.S. House of Representatives introduced the PROSPER Act to renew the Higher Education Act, which included four key changes: the creation of a new apprenticeship grant program, allowing Pell Grants to be used at programs that are more than 300 hours (the current requirement is 600 hours), eliminate the direct tie to credit hours for competency-based programs, and allow up to 100 percent of programs to be supported by alternative providers. And, it is possible that short-term Pell grants may be included in a proposal of infrastructure reforms from the Trump Administration.

In general, an increased focus on non-traditional educational pathways to meaningful employment is welcome. Institutions of higher education and new providers of postsecondary education, such as learn-and-earn models, provide promising approaches to meeting the educational and skills needs of many of today’s students.

However, meeting the needs of today’s students not only requires serving them well while enrolled, but also providing a credential that is meaningful in the next steps of a student’s life, whether that means continued study or a job. Just as employees are no longer as likely to work for one company during their career, it is unlikely that a student will be “one-and-done” with a traditional undergraduate degree, attending only once between ages 18 and 22. Instead, lifelong learning and periodic upskilling is fast-becoming the norm. Thus, the need for portable and high-quality credentials that lead to positive education and career outcomes.

This blog post was originally published in Success Digest, the National College Access Network newsletter and on their website.