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As the needs of the post-pandemic economy evolve and new Democratic leadership gets settled in Washington, several fabled ideas for revamping the Pell Grant program could have new life pumped into them. Three proposals now in play would transform the Pell grant as it approaches its 50th birthday.

The proposals would expand eligibility to short-term certificate programs, increase grants by $400 and allow DACA students to apply for the first time.

Students whose families earn less than certain thresholds can use Pell grant dollars at more than 5,000 schools across the country on programs that span at least 600 clock hours over 15 weeks. Congress sets the annual maximum a student can obtain based on cost estimates — $6,495 for the 2021-22 academic year — but the amount a student receives is based on the FAFSA-determined expected family contribution, the cost of the institution, their status as a full-time or part-time student and the length of time they intend to spend attending school.

The program was initially designed to pay for associate’s and bachelor’s degrees, but many vocational programs are also eligible.

A new bill proposed by Sen. Tim Kaine, D-Va., known as the JOBS Act, would greatly expand which programs are eligible for these federal funds. It would allow students to use Pell grant dollars on programs that are at least 150 clock hours over eight weeks — a change he says would serve as a “launching pad into the workforce.”

Although it has been introduced twice before without progressing, proponents say the coronavirus pandemic makes this legislation more important than ever because so many people have been left unemployed.

At a hearing Tuesday in Washington, Kaine said that many of these unemployed workers need access to short term credential programs because of the obligations they have to their families.

To be approved for Pell money, the short-term programs would have to meet the needs of the local or regional workforce; provide institutional credit articulation so students can pursue further education; and provide licenses, certifications or credentials that meet the hiring requirements of multiple employers in the given field.

So far, 33 of his Senate colleagues, from both parties, have signed on as co-sponsors.

Related: Nearly half of American parents don’t want their kids to go straight to a four-year college

Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, said this idea, which he’s long supported, is finally gaining momentum.

“This is a non-degree view of the world,” he recently told my colleague Jill Barshay. “It’s the training system American never had. But everyone recognizes that we need it now — we’ve needed it for a while… Having a training Pell Grant is a revolution.”

“I think it’s important to say I’m not a ‘four-year or bust’ person. But the idea is being marketed as there is a very, very short-term shortcut to making a middle-class wage, and for the most part that’s not true.” 

Amy Laitinen, director of higher education, New America think tank

But some advocates are wary.

Amy Laitinen, director of higher education within the education policy program at the think tank New America, said she agrees the federal government should invest in job training programs, but that Pell isn’t the appropriate vehicle.

“I think it’s important to say I’m not a ‘four-year or bust’ person,” Laitinen said. “But the idea is being marketed as there is a very, very short-term shortcut to making a middle-class wage, and for the most part that’s not true… There just aren’t a lot of shortcuts.”

A recent New America data analysis showed that more than half of employed adults with a short-term certificate earned $30,000 or less per year and the median income ranged from $20,000 to $30,000. The analysis also found that women and people of color earned less than their counterparts with similar certificates.

Kaine’s team says the program will give more people of all backgrounds access to postsecondary training, and lift up people who have historically been left out of higher education. Laitinen fears it will end up “tracking Black and brown folks into these programs that lead to low-paying jobs.”

Laitinen said she worries that the proposal lacks meaningful guardrails. She suggested that adding outcome measures and a living wage threshold would improve it.

Related: Urgency of getting people back to work gives new momentum to ‘microcredentials’

Wesley Whistle, New America’s senior advisor for policy and strategy, said he worries about the conflation of a higher education degree and a postsecondary certificate.

“A wage improvement is good, but the point of higher education isn’t to just give you a $2 wage bump. It’s about a middle-class job,” Whistle said. “You leave higher education — you should — with a different kind of employability and earning potential.”

Meanwhile, President Joe Biden has put two other proposals onto the table.

In a discretionary budget proposal addressed to the Senate Appropriations Committee, he proposed boosting Pell grants by $400 — what he says is the first step toward his goal of eventually doubling the amount. If it gets through, this would represent the largest single increase to Pell in more than a decade.

A new proposal would increase Pell grant awards by $400, which would move the current maximum students can obtain to nearly $7,000 per year.

The current maximum students can obtain per year is $6,495, so the increase would push the ceiling closer to $7,000.

If put toward credit hours, the extra money could pay for about one extra three-credit course at a public two-year community college; one credit or one-third of the price of a course at a public four-year university; or, at a private four-year university, less than one-third of a credit.

The grant dollars can also be used for housing costs, textbooks and supplies.

Still, Laitinen said, “for low-income students, $400 is $400. If your car breaks down, that matters.”

Kim Cook, the executive director of the National College Attainment Network, said in a statement the increase is an encouraging step toward doubling the Pell grant — which she said would restore the purchasing power to half the cost of college for a bachelor’s degree at an in-state, public university.

“For the current academic year, that would mean increasing from $6,345 to $12,690 and raising the purchasing power to 56%,” Cook said in a statement. “If Congress funds the President’s request, the $6,895 maximum Pell grant would raise the purchasing power from its current 28% to 31%.”

Related: Billions in federal financial aid is going to students who aren’t graduating

Biden’s proposal would also create a pathway to federal aid for undocumented students who are part of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program.

This expansion would represent the first time that undocumented immigrants are able to access federal student aid. Now, they rely on private scholarships and in some places, state aid and in-state tuition at public schools.

Candy Marshall, president of scholarship and advocacy group TheDream.US, said the Biden plan would allow more students to earn degrees and then contribute to the national economy.

It’s unclear exactly how many students this would make eligible for Pell funding because of DACA’s narrow eligibility requirements.

Marshall urged lawmakers to consider making students with Temporary Protective Status, or TPS, eligible for Pell, too. People with this status are in the United States legally often after a natural disaster or unrest in their native country, and are allowed to work.

This story about the Pell Grant was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Olivia Sanchez is a higher education reporter. She previously covered local and state government for the Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, Maryland. Sanchez earned a bachelor's degree in psychology...

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