Instructor Andrew Folsom is teaching Andre Glover vertical stick welding during a Welding Fundamentals Class. (Bridget Baylor, Blue Ridge Community College)

At just 22 years old, Christian Couric is already an experienced professional welder. A specialist in pipeline welding, Couric has worked in paper mills, commercial refrigeration facilities, as well as petrochemical plants in Kentucky, Texas and Louisiana. Currently, he’s in Reno, Nevada, helping to build a biofuel plant that will process the city’s garbage into jet fuel. He says he earns between $35 and $50 an hour, often working 60 to 70 hours a week. Industry magazines say skilled pipeline welders like Couric can clear as much as $5,000 weekly.

Couric doesn’t have a four-year degree or even an associate’s degree. What got him his start were three eight-week classes in welding from Blue Ridge Community College (BRCC) in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, where Couric grew up. It was enough to earn him a welding certificate and his first job at a local fabrication shop. “This is absolutely way more viable than any college degree I could have gotten for sure,” says Couric. “The guidance counselors and career coaches would always say, ‘Go to college, go to college, you have to go to college, you’re not going to amount to anything if you don’t go to college,’ but they were wrong.”

Couric is living proof that short-term, career-focused educational programs—provided they are high-quality courses for in-demand fields—can put workers on track to high-paying jobs. Most of these programs don’t, however, qualify for federal financial aid through the Pell Grant program, putting them out of reach for workers who are low-income or unemployed. The three courses Couric took cost about $5,600 at BRCC, including $1,998 for a welding fundamentals class, and about $3,700 for two courses in pipe welding (Couric’s specialization). Although Virginia offers a workforce training grant program that can pick up two-thirds of the tuition, BRCC President John Downey says many students in his corner of rural north-central Virginia still can’t afford to enroll. “It’s pretty insurmountable for the type of population we’re talking about when there’s no financial aid available,” he said.

Congress recently missed a chance to remedy this problem, and with it, a chance to help potentially tens of thousands of workers displaced by the pandemic. Legislation expanding Pell to many workforce programs has strong bipartisan support, and advocates had hoped for its inclusion in the China competitiveness bill passed by the Senate earlier this month. (Unfortunately, a “manager’s amendment” including the provision failed.) Now, as Congress contemplates infrastructure legislation, it should ensure the passage of “workforce Pell.” Federal financial aid for job training could be a vital support for workers in need of new skills as they face an economy permanently altered by COVID-19’s impacts. “It would be a game changer,” says BRCC’s Downey.

Opponents of short-term Pell argue the money would go toward poor-quality programs that lead to high-turnover, dead-end jobs. Certified nursing assistants, for instance, make notoriously low wages, and few ascend to better-paid careers in health care. Critics also say that workforce Pell lets employers off the hook for job training, shifting costs to taxpayers.

These objections, however, do not warrant the current blanket prohibition on Pell eligibility for all short-term training programs. These restrictions are not only unsupported by the evidence but create unnecessary barriers for adult learners pursuing more education.

Under current law, the Pell program only pays for classes that offer at least 600 hours of instruction over at least 15 weeks. Though intended to ensure program quality, this Pell length requirement is arbitrary. A program 599 hours long does not magically become more effective with one extra hour of instruction. As a December 2020 study by the Urban Institute concluded, “[t[here is no clear justification for the current line between programs that are Pell eligible and those that do not meet the program length requirements.” Some programs Pell pays for “provide little or no earnings boost for students,” write authors Sandy Baum, Harry Holzer and Grace Leutmer, while “many others, including programs that do not qualify for federal aid, do boost earnings.”

What matters, research finds, is not the quantity of classroom time but the quality of the program and the field of study. While many certificates may indeed have little value in the job market (cosmetology, for example), other programs can be valuable if they lead to industry-recognized certifications and are part of a career track that allows the accumulation (“stacking”) of credentials and skills. Welders, for instance, can earn up to 17 different certifications from the industry’s standard-setting body, the American Welding Society, and there are additional certifications for welding supervisors, inspectors, engineers and instructors. Likewise, in the IT industry, courses that lead to valuable professional certifications can translate into six-figure salaries.

In fact, says a 2020 study by the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, some certificate holders earn more than those holding associate’s or bachelor’s degrees. Workers with certificates in construction trades, for instance, have median earnings “that are as high as those of bachelor’s degree recipients in liberal arts and humanities (between $40,001 and $50,000),” while workers with certificates in engineering technologies can earn between $75,000 and $150,000 a year.

In Virginia, where the state’s five-year-old Fast Forward program subsidizes short-term credentials in high-demand fields, participants saw their earnings jump by a median of $6,100 (24 percent) one year out. Given these findings, it makes little sense to deny students federal financial aid for shorter-term programs that can deliver huge returns.

It also makes little sense to force adult learners, many of them juggling work and family obligations, to go to school full-time or part-time just to qualify for federal financial aid. Workers displaced by the pandemic, for instance, “have a hard time envisioning themselves going to college for two years to get an associate’s degree,” said BRCC President John Downey. “They don’t have two years of their life to set aside.” Shorter-term programs can offer a much shorter on-ramp and still deliver results.

Businesses also don’t want to wait. “The jobs are open now,” says Traci Tapani, co-president of Wyoming Machine, Inc., a small custom metal fabrication company north of Minneapolis. Tapani, who employs 55 people, says she works with nearby Pine Technical and Community College to recruit and train the welders her business desperately needs (entry-level salary: $15 to $18 an hour). Workers learn the basics in the classroom, and then get on-the-job training at Tapani’s firm. “In our experience, short term credentialing works very well,” she said. “We’re able to supplement what they’re learning in the classroom with hands-on experience in manufacturing. It’s proven to be a very successful way to take people who have little or no skill and quickly get them to the point where they can be contributors in a company that would otherwise struggle to fill its open positions.”

In response to critics’ worries that expanding Pell would open the floodgates to predatory for-profits eager to offer correspondence courses in truck driving, the legislation sponsored by Senators Tim Kaine, a Democrat from Virginia, and Rob Portman, a Republican from Ohio, provides plenty of safeguards to ensure quality. Among other things, the Kaine-Portman bill explicitly excludes for-profits from receiving short-term Pell and limits program eligibility to sectors where workers are in demand. Courses must be at least 150 hours and 8 weeks long and prepare students to receive an industry-recognized certification. Educational institutions also need to provide extensive outcomes and earnings data for graduates in order to keep programs eligible (a requirement that could actually prove overly burdensome to resource-strapped community colleges).

Given the benefits of short-term Pell and the safeguards built into the legislation, there’s no reason Congress shouldn’t act. According to the bill’s cosponsors, workforce Pell would cost about $190 million a year—or 0.6 percent of the $30 billion the federal government spends on the Pell program annually. The result, said welder Christian Couric, could be transformational for other workers like him. “I could name a dozen people I work closely with that I guess started off really not knowing what they were going to do with their life—working just a minimum wage job and kind of felt like they weren’t ever going to end up anywhere,” he said. “And then they heard about welding and were able to take a class similar to what Blue Ridge has. They just managed to scrape enough money together to pay for it. And then, you know, one thing led to another and here they are working in this industry that pays really good money and were able to completely turn their life around for the better.”

By passing workforce Pell, Congress will also recognize the value of non-degree programs and certificates in helping workers land good jobs. As workers like Couric amply illustrate, a college degree is not the only path to the middle class. Public investment in higher education should acknowledge that reality.

Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a Washington Monthly contributing editor and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection. Follow Anne on Twitter @Anne_S_Kim.