Column: Pave the path for more graduates

By Andy Levin
A shiny, new 2018 tassel waits to be switched to the other side, signifying graduation.

It’s graduation season and thousands of proud Michiganians are gathering at commencement ceremonies at our state’s colleges and universities to celebrate educational success. Commencement speeches are making their way around social media and onto the evening news. It’s the time of year when we get to feel inspired by the stories of tenacious young people, veterans and older adults who have overcome obstacles to obtain a degree and maybe even become the first college graduate in their family. I love graduation season.

In Michigan, over 200,000 of this year’s college graduates wouldn’t be donning a cap and gown if it weren’t for federal Pell grants, the nation’s largest financial aid program supporting college access for students with high financial need. Since 1972, Pell grants have helped more than 60 million Americans earn a degree — people for whom the door to college would otherwise be closed.

But a large of group of graduates with high financial need aren’t getting Pell’s support because they’re pursuing employment-focused certificates at community colleges and other educational institutions. They’ve decided to pursue high-demand jobs like welders, computer technicians or pharmacy technicians. The programs they enroll in are short-term because they’ve been developed, in partnership with employers, to help Michiganians quickly get into the workforce — or, for those who are working in low-wage jobs, to re-skill and increase their earnings. But students who choose to pursue these short-term certificates can’t receive Pell grants under current law because the program duration is too short (less than 15 weeks and 600 hours). In other words, these students are penalized because the programs they choose are too efficient at preparing them for jobs.

According to a national poll by Gallup and the Strada Education Network, a majority of students identify employment outcomes as their primary reason for engaging in higher education. What’s more, a majority of Michigan jobs require some postsecondary education, but not a four-year degree. Why, then, is our nation’s primary source of student financial aid unavailable for the programs that are most aligned with students’ employment goals and the demands of the labor market? This bias against the education and employment aspirations of working Michiganians should end.

In 2007, as former Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s chief workforce officer, I made sure that Michiganians had the support they needed to realize their employment goals, regardless of the educational pathway required to get there, through No Worker Left Behind. We offered unemployed, underemployed and low-wage workers up to two years of tuition at community colleges or other educational institutions for market-relevant credentials, including the kinds of certificates that aren’t supported by Pell grants. In just a few years, No Worker Left Behind supported 162,000 Michiganians in pursuing employment-focused credentials in high-demand industries.

If the people of the 9th District send me to Washington this fall, I’ll take with me the lessons we learned from No Worker Left Behind. I’ll work to end the bias against short-term, employment-focused education by helping to pass the bipartisan JOBS Act, which would extend Pell grants to students taking short-term programs that lead to industry demanded credentials.

So this graduation season, let’s continue to celebrate those who have done the hard work to earn a college degree. Let’s also celebrate the fact that so many of these graduates were able to succeed because of the Pell grant program. But by next graduation season, let’s aim higher. Let’s end the bias against working people in Pell and ensure that all Michiganians who need financial support can pursue the educational pathway that achieves their goals.

Andy Levin served as Michigan’s first chief workforce officer and currently runs a statewide program called Lean & Green Michigan, which helps businesses and nonprofits upgrade their buildings with clean energy technology. He is running for Congress in Michigan’s 9th District.