Short-Term Pell: Expanding Opportunity and Widening Pathways for Today’s Students

By HLA's Richard Davis Jr., policy associate, and Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, managing director, policy and research.


For over 50 years, the Pell Grant, a cornerstone of federal financial aid for today’s students, has supported millions in accessing higher education. In the 2021-22 academic year alone, 6.1 million students utilized the Pell Grant to take one step closer to reaching their educational and career goals. As the cost of postsecondary education rises and our labor market continues to evolve, policymakers must update the Pell Grant program to meet the needs of both students and employers looking for skilled talent.

Program modernization can be achieved by expanding the rules governing the Pell Grant to cover the costs of short-term credential programs (also known as Short-term Pell). Doing so will meet the needs of Americans seeking a quicker path into quality in-demand occupations, while addressing the skills mismatch between the current workforce and the emerging jobs of the future.


What is Short-term Pell?

CNA students laughing while studying

Short-term Pell, sometimes known as Workforce Pell, expands the federal Pell Grant’s eligibility rules to support student enrollment in quality, short-term credential programs that lead to good jobs. This expansion is designed to enable today’s students to access more educational options and skills training aligned with in-demand career opportunities. Under current federal law, only students enrolled in postsecondary programs that are at least 16 weeks in length (or 600 clock hours) are eligible to receive the Pell Grant. Short-term Pell would provide Pell Grant eligibility for certain approved programs at least eight weeks (or 150 clock hours) in length but not more than 15 weeks.


Four Key Advantages of Short-term Pell

Addressing the 40 million with some college, no credential

As of 2021, there are 40.4 million adults who have earned some college credit, but have not completed enough to receive a credential. In a survey of non-completers, only 19% indicated they are no longer interested or don’t need to complete their education. Clearly, there is a desire among roughly 32.7 million of these adults to return to higher learning, gain new skills, and earn higher wages. However, as adults, they may now have significant constraints on their time (such as child care and their current job) that make it challenging to finish a degree program. Short-term Pell can enable these students to return to postsecondary education and earn the skills and credentials they need to advance in the workforce but in a shorter time frame.


Initiating new and shorter pathways into postsecondary education

“College isn’t for everyone” is a common refrain heard across the nation when discussing postsecondary education. When one looks at the current landscape of higher education pathways and their affordability, it’s clear that college wasn’t designed for everyone. However, innovative pathways such as short-term credential programs are an emerging way for students to quickly earn a credential that leads to an in-demand, quality job. When implemented well, these credentials can be stackable, portable, and competency-based, leading to additional skills training or even a two- or four-year degree program. 


Meeting emerging demands of today’s workforce 

Today’s job market is in a constant state of change, with employers continually seeking workers with the skills necessary to fill in-demand occupations. Because short-term credential programs are shorter in length, they can more easily and quickly target the workforce needs of a particular state or region. A targeted approach provides students with a general understanding that their skills gained and credentials earned will lead to employment and increased wages upon the completion of their program.


Forging bipartisan consensus to improve higher learning 

It’s challenging to find bipartisan support on many of today’s policy issues, but expanding the Pell Grant to short-term credential programs has bipartisan and bicameral support. With the introduction of two bills in the Senate and one bill in the House, Short-term Pell has proven itself to be a unifying issue that both sides of the aisle view as a viable pathway to improving higher learning. With growing support and continued technical improvements, Short-term Pell can be a real solution that puts the educational and employment needs of today’s students first.


Ensuring Quality and Value for Today’s Students

Because the Pell Grant touches the lives of so many of today’s students, it is important that the expansion of the program protects the integrity of taxpayer dollars and provides students with a quality return on their investment. Several guardrails can be implemented, ensuring short-term programs meet appropriate standards to be accessed with Pell, such as:

Transferability and Stackability:

Institutions planning to make Pell Grants available for short-term programs should require offerings be connected to a credential or credit-bearing program. Mapping out the alignment and transferability of short-term career programs with multiple higher learning pathways provides students with a bridge to continue their education via a longer certificate or a two- or four-year degree.

State Authorization:

State workforce boards (as defined under the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act) can ensure that potential Pell-eligible, short-term credential programs align with the high-skill, high-wage, or in-demand jobs within their region, as well as assure prospective short-term credentials comply with state/regional licensure and certification requirements.


Federally-recognized accreditation organizations can also make sure credentials are portable across employers and credits earned are accepted across institutions for purposes of transfer or stacking. Accreditors can also implement a predetermined waiting period to ensure programs are established for a specified duration before being deemed eligible to participate in Short-term Pell.

U.S. Department of Education:

Lastly, the Department of Education (ED) can ensure that an institution’s short-term credential program meets certain student success criteria, such as thresholds for program completion, job placement, median earnings of completers, and other value-added metrics.


States are Leading the Way

While many short-term credential programs are not currently eligible for Pell Grants, states have recognized the labor market value of these programs. A recent report found states have invested at least $3.81 billion in short-term credential pathways. Funding is allocated in various ways, including financial aid, student supports, and capacity building to help develop high-quality programs. Although states are doing what they can to ensure high-quality, short-term credential pathways are a viable option for the students in their state, expanding Pell Grants to support these programs will guarantee more of today’s students can access this emerging path to higher learning.


Female student operating drone

Virginia’s FastForward Program

Since 2015, Virginia has been a leader in expanding access to short-term pathways. The state provides $13.5 million annually to its community colleges to support students who pursue more than 124 courses that cover short-term workforce training programs such as health care, information technology, and welding/manufacturing. The outcomes of the program have been very promising, with over 90% of students completing their credentials, and those who do are earning 25% to 50% more than they did before enrolling.

Iowa Skilled Workforce Shortage Tuition Grant

Since 2014, Iowa has strategically invested in ensuring more students have financial aid for the short-term training they need to succeed in high-demand career fields. During the 2021-22 academic year, nearly 5,000 Iowans received grants averaging $1,405, which allowed them to access over 34 different career/technical programs. A 2017 study of the grant program found that grant recipients were much more likely to earn a credential (48%) than those in the comparison cohort (25%).



Expanding Pell Grants to high-quality, short-term credential programs is an innovative and practical step that federal policymakers can take to modernize the Pell Grant and better meet the needs of today’s students and employers. There is no shortage of advantages to doing so. Continued bipartisan cooperation and input are critical to implementing Short-term Pell in a way that ensures value and a high-quality return on investment for students and taxpayers. While states are doing what they can to expand access to pathways, federal action is needed to ensure more students can afford higher learning and gain the skills necessary to be successful in today’s ever-changing workforce. That begins with Short-term Pell.

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