Pell Grant “Experimentation” May Go Beyond Expanding Access to the Incarcerated

Big news today in the world of correctional education, with the Wall Street Journal, Politico, and others reporting that the Obama administration is about to announce an “experimental” program to expand incarcerated adults’ access to Pell grants. (Congress made federal and state prisoners ineligible for federal financial aid back in the mid-1990s.) According to these sources, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is scheduled to make “an important announcement related to federal aid” during a visit to a Maryland prison on Friday.

While the attention this week is on incarcerated adults, the administration’s Pell “experimentation” may eventually extend into other areas. Speculation yesterday about the administration announcing a plan to restore access to Pell for prisoners was prompted by a speech Duncan gave earlier in the day — while mainly focused on higher education outcomes, there was a brief aside towards the end about how the administration was looking to “experiment” with expanded Pell access. But that part of the speech, excerpted below, was not only about expanding Pell access to incarcerated adults:

We want to do even more, developing experimental sites that will make Pell grants available to programs that award credentials based on demonstrated competency, to incarcerated adults seeking an independent, productive life after they get out of jail, and to adult learners who enroll in short-term certificate programs that provide meaningful job-ready training. (my emphasis)

So stay tuned. The news this week may be the first of several Pell announcements with significant implications for adult learners.

Free College for All Not Exactly Free College For All

This is a pretty good analysis of the bill recently passed by the Mississippi legislature that would pay community college tuition for Mississippi high school graduates who are not covered by other sources of financial aid. The basic problem is that while it sounds great, (free college for all), it doesn’t really target the people who need the help the most. Most important, I think, is the fact that “recent high school graduates” are actually a minority of the students served by such institutions—most are older adults.

But I also agree that despite the flaws, it’s probably a positive sign that ideas like this are on the table (Tennessee and Oregon have similar proposals in the works). How do we get adult learners into the mix?

Dept. of Education Apparently Has Authority to Waive At Least Some Pell Grant Requirements Without Congressional Approval

Politico published an interesting story last week by Libby Nelson on the potential executive actions the administration could take to address some of the President’s higher education proposals. This section, in particular, caught my eye:

The Education Department could also give colleges the flexibility to test new programs by waiving financial aid rules. The department already experiments with new approaches to financial aid. One current experiment allows students who already have a bachelor’s degree to get another Pell Grant — not typically allowed — so they can enroll in a vocational program.

Colleges volunteer to participate in the experiments, and the Education Department has the authority to waive legal requirements. A similar approach could be used, at least on a small scale, to try out additional innovative programs.

Obama singled out a program at Southern New Hampshire University that allows students to earn degrees at their own pace by completing readings and taking tests to show how much they’ve learned. Other experiments could let students use financial aid to pay for tests that let them earn credit for skills picked up outside the classroom. Or they could expand federal financial aid to include high school students earning college credit through dual enrollment programs. (my emphasis)

This section—particularly the last sentence—raises the question as to whether the administration could/would use this authority to provide something resembling “ability to benefit” (ATB) Pell Grant eligibility for certain adults or out-of-school youth without a high-school diploma—perhaps on an “experimental,” college-by-college basis. (ATB was eliminated in a budget deal back in 2012.) There have been proposals in recent months to try to legislatively restore ATB for students enrolled in certain dual enrollment programs—could something similar be done via administrative action?

(Putting aside for now the equity issue raised by restoring ATB eligibility only for students with access to certain approved programs.)