The Rant

Short-Term Pell & the Changing Perceptions of Higher Education - A Conversation with Rachel Fishman, New America

January 03, 2024 Eloy Oakley/Rachel Fishman Season 2 Episode 10
The Rant
Short-Term Pell & the Changing Perceptions of Higher Education - A Conversation with Rachel Fishman, New America
Show Notes Transcript

In this episode, I talk with Rachel Fishman, acting Director of Higher Education at New America. I ask Rachel about the bipartisan House proposal to create a short-term Pell program and discuss her concerns about the proposal. We also discuss the latest New American survey, Varying Degrees, about the changing perceptions of Americans regarding the value of a higher education. 

Eloy:

Hi, this is Eloy Ortiz Oakley and welcome back to The Rant, the podcast where we pull back the curtain and break down the people, the policies, and the politics of our higher education system. In this episode, I get to sit down with Rachel Fishman, Director of Education at New America. Rachel leads the education policy work of a very dynamic and influential think and action tank. Rachel has also been involved in New America's work around the well read education survey called Varying Degrees. I'm going to sit down with Rachel and ask her several questions about what's going on in higher education these days, but before we do all that, Rachel, welcome to The Rent.

Rachel:

Thank you so much for having me.

Eloy:

It's great to have you. Thanks for doing this. I know how busy you are, particularly this time of year. So, Rachel, you are the acting director of higher education. At New America, you've been involved in higher education policy work for more than 10 years and have been instrumental in the work focused on how Americans think about the value of higher education. However, before we jump into all that great work, let's talk about you. Tell us about your higher education journey and how you landed in your current role at New America.

Rachel:

Yeah. I always love questions like this because when you work in policy you get asked this question a lot. And what you find out over time is that there are very few Routes that are straightforward into these policy roles. So, you know, like a lot of policy people, I went to college and I majored in French. I am kidding.

Eloy:

ha

Rachel:

There probably aren't a ton of us who majored in French out there. I'm sure there's some of us who majored in French out there. But the reason why I say this is because a lot of people in these policy roles majored in humanities, social sciences, liberal arts and I think, you know, these, these majors are really under threat lately. Like, what does that get you in the workforce? And it's like, well, it could get you a job like, If you learn how to be a good communicator, if you learn how to be a good writer, if you learn how to think dynamically and critically about issues, all that these degrees are supposed to give you, then you can fare very, very well in your career. So this is all to say, Don't fret, French majors out there, there is a place for you in the world, and you also get to visit France and speak some French on vacation. So, anyways, I got my French degree and I thought I wanted to go into law, and so before I went to law school, I worked in a law firm to try and see what that was like. And this is at the height of the great recession. And, and I got to witness a large reduction in force at the law firm I was working at. I think over the time I was there, 10 to 20 percent of the, of the workforce was, was laid off. And I always felt like at any moment, my, my number was going to be called. I was going to be out. So that was really stressful, but I also saw that law was just really not going to be for me. I didn't particularly like what I was engaging in, and I realized maybe my talents were better off elsewhere, and so I went back to school to pursue another career path in higher education administration because I really valued working with students. I'd done a lot of it as an undergrad. I was an academic advisor, worked in residence life and so I thought, you know, maybe this is what I really want to do. But what happened while I was in grad school is that I just fell in love with my policy classes. I got to take a few policy classes with some great thinkers and it really inspired me. And I also got to work this really great internship in Boston Public Library in the basement, helping students navigate the financial aid process, helping them choose where to go to college, helping them understand what would be the best financial fit and academic fit for me. And in helping these students, I saw that there are just so many policy barriers particularly at the time with the FAFSA. I filled out so many FAFSAs, it was like something has to change with this. And so I really saw policy at that point as the perfect marriage between my desire to help make things better for low income, first generation students of color, and my love for research analysis, law and policy. And that took me right here to Washington, DC. And that's basically where I've been ever since I've been, at New America for over a decade in a variety of roles and I've really grown up, like, over the past 10 years from policy analyst to director. And I direct our, our program at New America where our vision is a higher education system that is accessible. affordable, equitable, and accountable for helping students lead fulfilling and economically secure lives.

Eloy:

Well, thanks for that background. And that's certainly a a great framing for our conversation. So. Let's start with the most recent news in the higher education landscape. There's a lot of talk in Congress, particularly in the House, about short term Pell. There's been a lot of talk in Congress over the last year about short term Pell, and I know New America has weighed in on a couple of different proposals that have come up, but this latest proposal in the House, I know that you and, and your colleague Amy there at New America have weighed in pretty aggressively about the proposal. Tell us, tell our listeners about this latest proposal in the house to introduce a new short term Pell program, and what are your concerns about it? Mm

Rachel:

I think short term Pell really is a policy misnomer and I'm here to unpack that. So right now you can get a Pell grant for a short term program. That's 15 weeks. So right now you actually can get a Pell grant for a short term program that is only a semester's length when policymakers on the Hill are discussing quote unquote short term Pell. What they're talking about is expanding Pell to Even shorter credentials. At this point, I want to call them teeny tiny credentials, little, little credentials that are only 8 to 14 weeks long. So we are we are in the future of this. If this comes to pass and there's a really good chance that it's going to happen extending the Pell Grant to, to to certificate programs that are less than half a semester. And you know, I've never seen such excitement, bipartisan excitement. I mean, there's so few issues that have bipartisan excitement around them, especially like any topic area, but also in higher education. And short term Pell is just one of those places where policy makers are like, yeah, this is totally awesome. People should get short term credentials to go to short term programs like welding. Leaving aside the fact that welding programs are actually much, much more than 8 to 14 weeks. So, first of all, again, these are, people are always envisioning longer term programs. But there's just no evidentiary basis for expanding Pell grants to these very short term programs. They just do not have the economic outcomes that policymakers have been hearing anecdotally which is why they've been, they've been pursuing this. First, you know, again, a lot of policymakers think, oh, you can't get a short term Pell when, yes, actually, you can get a short term Pell. And then a lot of policymakers think that the outcomes are better than they are. We don't have a lot of data on what the outcomes for these credentials are, but the data that we do have, Numerica's done an analysis, and 40 percent of people who earn these very, very short term credentials are unemployed after they earn them. That's not a great outcome. That's a terrible outcome. And then, Most are, on average, earning poverty level wages, and where it gets really damning is that when you break that down by Black students, by Latinx students, by particularly women you see even lower suppressed wages 10, lower than those poverty level earnings that I mentioned. So, don't have a lot of evidence to do this. and what evidence we do have is that we shouldn't do this. So lots of concerns about short term Pell and I think the the answer really if it if it moves forward as it moves forward is that there are. Lots of guardrails from a consumer protection standpoint that really prevent students from enrolling and using their time and their, their Pell Grant lifetime eligibility on these programs. And so that's what we're really monitoring at New America is the various guardrails that are within the various pieces of legislation.

Eloy:

Right. And I certainly appreciate that last point. The guardrails are critically important so that any new investment on the part of the federal government is going to its directed target, which are individuals who need skills to get into the workforce, to upscale themselves, to get a chance to better participate in economic mobility that we want for them. I know I've talked to a lot of folks on my podcast. This issue has come up a lot. People I talk to, particularly in the community colleges are excited about the possibility. So let me, let me sort of pose to you the other side of this argument. And, and tell me your thoughts about how you would craft guardrails. Particularly as we think about. The recently developed gainful employment regs by the Department of Education I think certainly are potential guardrails for some of this work having to prove that these programs actually lead to earnings, making sure that these programs are not terminal programs, that they continue to lead to higher level credentials. because I think most of the people I talk to have no argument with. the bachelor's degree being, you know, that, that greatest lifelong lever for economic mobility. But also on the flip side, there's lots of bachelor's degrees that we fund through Pell that also lead to poverty wages. I think Michael Itzkowitz has done a lot of work highlighting some of that. So how, how do you see the other side of this coin and the enthusiasm, the bipartisan enthusiasm? Particularly from folks in, in community colleges who have been thinking about this a lot. How do you reconcile the two sides of, of this argument?

Rachel:

this is a, this is a great question. So I think the good, the, the good news, despite still very valid concerns about the legislation is that there are guardrails within the legislation that we see. To your point, I think any short term Pell legislation moving forward is going to have to have important earnings thresholds You know earnings gains. I think a big one is excluding the for profit sector. So you were talking about community colleges. Community colleges do a lot of this, this training. But the for profit institutions tend to, when they get their hands on, on taxpayer dollars, they tend to exploit that and they tend to be predatory and they tend to grow their programs So making sure, that's one, that's one way to make sure that we don't sort of open the floodgates to to these programs and having them just turbo charge and grow before we really understand and see their outcomes. And then another similar guardrail would be to prevent, Online programs from participating. You know, one of the reasons why policy makers say they want to do this expansion is because people need to have training for very hands on careers. You can't have training for a hands on career if you're doing it online. So, so, sort of excluding online programs from accessing something like a short term Pell is important to, again, prevent that massive and sudden growth and also keep fidelity with making sure that the degrees are for those hands on certificates that policy makers say that their, their regions really need and which is why, why we, we need this program. I mean In general, and I know we're going to talk about value today when it comes to the work we see from, from Mike, as you mentioned about bachelor's degrees some bachelor's degrees, not having a good payoff either. I think it's important that. One of the reasons I think value is faltering in this nation or perception of value of a higher education is faltering in this nation is that we just, things have gotten really expensive. People have to borrow a lot of loans or there's at least a sense that people have to borrow a lot of loans to afford it. And then you see data that it's not. It's not worth it. And so I think this just points to in general, not just for these short term programs, not just for career oriented gainful employment programs. We need oversight writ large on higher education to make sure that students are meeting some minimum Benchmarks, not high benchmarks. We're not going to expect teachers to make a ton of money and we're not going to expect social workers to make a ton of money. But low benchmarks such as did you graduate and can you make more than somebody in your state who has just a high school degree? I mean, that is a very low benchmark. That is common sense for a lot of institutions and students and families deserve to know that information when they're rolling in these programs.

Eloy:

Oh, we completely agree with you. I know in my day job the College Reaches Foundation, those are the kind of questions we're going to be digging into for our learners in California, getting more and better information to the learner and their families. Now, before we move to specifically talking about value, let me ask you one last thing about this short term Pell proposal, because I think it's, it's caused a lot of kerfuffle. The pay for aspect of, of the proposal, how, how this would actually be paid for. I know you all have raised some serious concerns about that. Can you explain to, to our listeners exactly what that aspect of the proposal?

Rachel:

Oh my goodness. Hang on to your seats, folks, because if you haven't been paying attention, here's where things get really interesting. So, all along the way, we're all going like, okay, sure, sure, short term Pell, don't love this hope it has a lot of guardrails. Reading through the legislation, you get to page, like, 27, and it's like, here's how we're going to pay for it. So, and this was, and I think it's important to note, this was a bipartisan agreement. So this is a bipartisan bill between the chairwoman Representative Fox of the Education Workforce Committee in the House Ranking Member Scott who's also on, on that committee. So, I mean, that just shows, like, how much negotiation went into this. And the pay for is that any school that faces the endowment Tax. So that's, I think, like 34. It's in the low 30s institutions. So these are the really wealthy private institutions in the nation that they would no longer be able to participate in the federal student government. So they would no longer be able to disperse any federal student loans to undergraduates and any, this one's really important because I think this has bigger implications for these schools, any graduate students. So that includes the Graduate Plus Loan Program.

Eloy:

Wow. Yeah, no, that's definitely going to cause a lot of interest

Rachel:

Yeah, and I think it's just sort of slipped under the radar because the wealthier institutions, right, we're not paying attention to the short term Pell legislation, because to your point, this is more These types of programs happen more, much more in the community college sector and the for profit sector. It's not really what you would see at these wealthy, high endowment institutions. So they've just, you know, been going along, not paying attention. And then all of a sudden, This gets unveiled. It gets marked up this week. It's moving very quickly. And I think it's just been challenging to raise the alarm bells on it because we think, you know, this opens up. First of all, short term Pell could lead to predatory programs for low income students of color who just want a short term credential and just get out of higher education. But it also prevent, it also leads to equity implications for, particularly for students of color who are trying to access prestigious law and medical schools. You usually have to borrow. I mean, Harvard doesn't give, like, full schol that I know of. I mean, maybe I'm speaking out of turn, but most medical schools aren't like, we're giving you a full ride to attend our medical school. Medical education's really expensive. Um, we want people to be able to, to access these graduate schools, even if it means loans, because we know if you go to to, Harvard Medical School, you're going to be able to pay back your loans. so it's potentially cutting off routes of access to, low income students of color to, to these prestigious grad schools, and we should all be really worried about that.

Eloy:

I, I agree we should be worried about this whole conversation because I think you know, certainly if you're one of the wealthy schools right now, one of the more rejective schools right now, you've had a really tough couple of weeks. So let's, let's jump into the value question because I think this dovetails very well. There is an erosion of confidence, particularly in the most what we have considered over time as You know, the wealthiest institutions, those institutions that we have held up highest on the value proposition in the past. There's a lot of concern about cost, a lot of concern about indebtedness. you all have been looking at this question of post secondary value for some time. You've published a survey. Over the last several years, titled of varying degrees, tell us about what you found in your recent survey and how these perceptions of value are changing over time.

Rachel:

so for, for those who don't know, Varying Degrees is a nationally representative annual survey on American adults perceptions of higher education. So we explore issues related to value of higher education, how Americans think it should be funded, and how we should hold higher education accountable for that funding, whether it be student investment, taxpayer investment. great about the survey is that it, And what makes it so powerful, to your point, we've been doing this for years now, so we actually just signed, we're just in the process of signing off on our instrument for 2024. But we've been doing this since 2017, and it really allows us to understand perceptions over a time period that, I mean, you think about life in 2017, that this period has been full of political and economic upheaval. Uh, And so, you know, how exactly. In our survey, have, have perceptions changed or not changed over time? And one of the questions we've asked all seven years is whether Americans think higher ed is just That, that was phrased, we asked that on day one. Maybe I would have phrased it differently if I could, like, rewind time, But it's really a temperature check question, to understand, like, at this moment in time, like, how are you feeling about higher education? Is it okay? Is it working? And when we first collected data, this was one of our big findings. Only 1 in 4 thought higher education was fine the way it is. What's interesting is that people are still in the minority on this question, but we've seen it increase over the years to 40 percent. 40 percent of Americans say higher ed is fine the way it is. So we find that very interesting. We're trying to unpack that a little bit more, more this year go into field. Um, But overall, like, there are some good things when you look at the data. A sizable majority believe that a close family member should go to higher education, that they would recommend it because it leads to economic security. generally agree that those who complete a post secondary education have better jobs, more opportunities to build wealth, that they contribute to their communities in a variety of ways um, tax revenues uh, skilled workforce. And so you might be sitting there thinking, wait, hold on a second. I've seen some really bad polling data saying exactly the opposite. What the heck is going on? Wasn't there a Paul Tuff article on this issue in the New York Times Magazine recently that kind of was unpacking all of this and how Americans don't really believe in higher ed that much anymore. And so, you know, what I say to that is that yes, our data paints a more positive picture. I don't think things are as bad as they seem, but we have certainly picked up on what I would call this simmering pessimism about higher education over time that really does seem to be taking hold. told you about a whole host of questions about value where people. In general, like when you aggregate up that people feel like fairly positive about things, but new this year we did a demographic cluster analysis where we tried to understand how different people cluster on their thoughts about value and what we discovered is that 52 of Americans It's just are higher ed believers. They're like, sign me up. Everybody needs education. Everybody needs more and more education to have an economically secure life. And then 48%, which is really, really high, are skeptics. They are not on board with higher education and its value proposition at all. All just not at all. give you a quick overview, like what does this actually look like? Like who are the believers? Who are the skeptics? What do they believe and what are they skeptical about? So the believers nearly all think graduates benefit more economically and socially compared to those without so that there's a huge economic https: otter. ai benefit to individuals. They also think there's a huge societal benefit to having people get more education in terms of, tax revenues contributing to their communities. And most think that colleges and universities are having a positive impact in the direction of this country right now. they think, you know, like I said, more and more education, the more education you have, the better. Everybody should get as much education as they should possibly get, because that's going to make you lead a much better life and get more wealth and all of those good things. Meanwhile, the skeptics, they literally see no benefit to a graduate. compared to those without credentials? None. Very few believe there are any social benefits compared to those without credentials, though they do believe they do see some social benefits. So they're not like totally negative there, but they are negative when it comes to a personal return on investment. they're more likely to think colleges are having a negative impact on the way things are going in, in this, in this country. probably wondering, like, who are these people, right? Who, are these just Democrat, you know, are the believers Democrats and are the skeptics Republicans? do a lot of Democrat Republican analysis because we're situated in Washington, D. C., and we talk to federal policy makers do federal policy research. But I'm here to tell everyone that the believers are not all Democrats. While uh, plurality of them are. 43 percent a full fifth of believers are Republicans. So you still have a full fifth that would consider themselves Republicans. Similarly, skepticals are more skeptics are more likely to be Republican, but a full quarter are Democrats. So this just isn't about it being partisan. And I like to leave people with this. I know I've been rambling on and on about our data, but what I find most concerning about what we saw in the data was that For our, our higher education skeptics, 40 percent believe that all you need in this nation for economic security is just a high school diploma and not a credit, not a single credit of higher education an additional 22 percent said all you need is one of those short term technical certificates, which I just said don't usually lead to the returns we would, we would like to see. so, It's just wild, the dissonance to me, because that's, we have so much economic data to show that I don't know why you think a high school diploma is sufficient. a lot of data showing otherwise, and so we should all be concerned about that.

Eloy:

absolutely. And I think this is a huge alarm bell for my colleagues who are leading institutions of higher education throughout the country. We've been seeing an erosion in confidence in the institutions for years since the Great Recession. And this is just another reminder that we just need to do a much better job. Of one, clearing the path for learners so that they can access those institutions more clearly, more readily in greater numbers, lower the cost of attendance, and show clear value for the work that they're doing, clearly articulate the, the programs and curriculum with the economic mobility outcomes that they want to see. So I think it is an important lesson for policymakers, but also for the leaders in these institutions. They can't just throw up their hands and say, we're doing the best that we can. Clearly, we're not doing the best that we can. Let me ask you this. You're looking at the landscape of higher education from your perch there at New America. A lot of uncertainty gripping higher education institutions these days. There's an enrollment decline. We've just seen, you know, concerns raised about student voices on campus. Protests concerns about DEIA on campuses. As you, as you look at this from your perspective, what do you see are some of the biggest challenges that our listeners should be paying attention to?

Rachel:

right now, the left is really focused, or the left movement, I mean, is really focused on forgiving. Student loan debt, right? in terms of like, the platform of what we are looking for in higher education, the right is really focused on Getting rid of loans or not necessarily getting rid of them or capping them. Like, oh, people are borrowing too many loans. So the solution is don't let them borrow as much loans, like not really looking at the cost part of the equation. And, and to your point, they're really focused on sort of the free speech on campus, culture wars. the challenges with uh, hearing a couple of weeks ago about antisemitism on campus. And all of this is, is sort of, yeah. Sucking a lot of oxygen of the room to have the policy discussions that we, that we really need to have. think when you talk so much about forgiving debt and there's been a lot of media coverage of, of forgiving debt, what happens is that you're signaling to students and families that higher education isn't worth it. Like you shouldn't borrow to go pursue a degree because it's just not going to pay off for you. And so it's sort of on its face, the debt cancellation conversation actually undermines the, access to higher education conversation. Similarly, when, you know, Republicans just want to cap loans without addressing. Costs. Well, that's certainly going to cut off access as as well. So you think policymakers really need to figure out is, Were we even to be able to hit some sort of like, boop, magic button that's just like, that someone has somewhere that's like, the debt is forgiven. I mean, we would also need a button that was like, boop, and now everything's affordable for

Eloy:

Right, exactly.

Rachel:

so we really need to grapple with like, how do we answer that question? In many ways, it's like the questions are disassociated when they have to be reassociated. So how do we make higher education? More affordable. And when we do make higher education more affordable, how do we make it more accountable? there's a lot of movements to make college free. And, that's a very challenging policy, right? But a lot of states are putting these policies into place and promise programs and all sorts of things. But how can we get the state and federal government come to the table and to help fund higher education together? But then If we do that, and that's really what will change the equation, how do we hold states accountable to maintain their investment, and how do we hold institutions accountable for that investment as well to make sure, as we were talking about, that students are graduating, at least making more than a high school graduate would have made institutions accountable? aren't then suddenly leveraging their own financial aid dollars like we see the elite institutions do. They'll literally figure out ways to offer their own merit aid while using federal aid to offer different types of financial aid packages to different types of students. So, you know, how do we hold institutions accountable for maintaining that affordability for students that need them most? those are really the, the, the big. Questions and then I would say overall, another big one that that that policymakers have to grapple with is how do we promote the dismantling of structural structural racism? In The ways in which our higher education is resourced and where institutions land, like, we know, for example, that HBCUs have been chronically underfunded. We know that, like, I think it's a majority or most community colleges are Hispanic serving institutions at this point, so, and they tend to be very under resourced. So, we tend to throw so much money. States particularly in their subsidy models to, you know, flagship wealthy institutions when really the whole equation needs to change so that we are providing pathways for the lowest income students so that they do have an opportunity to get the credential that they want to get that will give them the best labor market return.

Eloy:

So let me ask you one final question Rachel as we begin to close We've talked about what's going on what's happened in the past Let's talk about the new year. As you think about 2024, what excites you the most about the work that New America is diving into?

Rachel:

I It's funny because it's the end of the year. So I'm just like trying to get a bunch of stuff done as I'm sure everybody else is trying to get a bunch of stuff. It's such a stressful time. But I think there's a couple things. One, we're going to continue to build our And I say this because a lot of people are like, they don't mention like the teamwork that goes into policy work. So I firmly believe that ego is the enemy of good policy work. And so it's really dependent on the people that you work with and the content flows from that. So really building up our team in the new year. We have someone new joining us in January, which is going to be exciting. also Content wise, I am really interested in keeping an eye on what's going on with short term Pell, continuing to be one of the lonely voices that's like, hey, hold on, wait a second, this is perhaps, like, not the, the best way forward, or how can this be a better way for forward. doing a lot of work with some of my colleagues on cosmetology programs. How could we better structure cosmetology? If anybody's looked at the gainful employment data on cosmetology, it's really bad. And so trying to figure out, like, how can we make that better and more friendly. then I also do a lot of work on, on Again, because I just feel at my heart and core, I'm a consumer protection advocate on financial aid, award letters, offers, packages. They're very confusing to navigate right now for students and families. they don't include cost information. they like combine grants, loans and, and work study, making it seem that students have like a full ride when they really don't. And it's just, there's no other, there's no other, policy financial product that I can think of that's as expensive as higher education that doesn't have a common disclosure of what the price and aid is. So, we've really been advocating for financial aid offer reform. There's a great legislation called the Understanding the True Cost of College Act that would look to make it, make financial aid offers much more decipherable by students and families. So looking to, to continue the, the drumbeat on, on that work in the new year because that's another one that has bipartisan support. So again, there's few, like there's few things with bipartisan support. So what does have bipartisan support? We'll see if it can get over the, the finish line in this Congress. So I, I have some, some hope there.

Eloy:

Great. Well, listen, I really appreciate you taking some time to, to talk with me and, and uh, give your, your thoughts and perspective about what's going on. Really appreciate the work that you're leading there at New America and the work in general that New America has done for higher education policy throughout the last several years. So, Rachel, thanks for being with us and hope you enjoyed your time here on The Rant.

Rachel:

Yeah, this was great. Thanks for having me again.

Eloy:

All right, everyone. Thanks for joining me here on the rant. If you enjoyed this episode, hit the like button. Let me know your thoughts about the conversation that Rachel and I just had, particularly if you have thoughts about short term pill. I know we'll be talking about this more and more over the next couple of months. To hear more episodes hit subscribe. You can always follow us on YouTube, as well as all of your favorite podcast platforms. Take care, everybody, and thanks for joining us.