In an economy where more than 80 percent of all jobs require education or training beyond high school and 50 percent of jobs can be classified as “middle-skill”—meaning they require more than a high school diploma but not a four-year degree—the demand for high-quality, short-term credentials is greater than ever.
Due to this growing trend, more and more individuals are enrolling in postsecondary education with a different set of objectives than first-time, full-time students between the ages of eighteen and twenty-five. In fact, an increasing number of students are pursuing higher education while balancing work and family obligations for the explicit purpose of finding success in the labor market. For these reasons, credentials achieved through short-term programs—which can include industry-recognized credentials or certifications, licenses and certificates—make up 24 percent of all postsecondary awards in the U.S. today.
Despite the growing utility of certificates for both individuals and employers in need of skilled workers, students who choose to enroll in short-term programs are typically ineligible for federal financial aid. Current law stipulates that students can only receive a federal Pell grant if they enroll in a program of study that is at least 600 clock hours of instruction over fifteen weeks and results in the attainment of academic credit. Because of this policy, students who wish to enroll in a short-term or noncredit program must either pay out of pocket to cover their costs or commit to an academic program that meets the Pell grant length requirements—even if it will not lead them to success in their chosen field.