Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The Shifting Terrain of Welfare Reform

Magazine article Black Issues in Higher Education

The Shifting Terrain of Welfare Reform

Article excerpt

The Shifting Terrain Of Welfare Reform: Educational Advocates for Low-Income Students Looking for Solid Ground

For hundreds of thousands of the nation's poor adults, community colleges have long delivered their best chance for gaining sufficient education and training to land a job that could break their dependence on welfare.

Literacy and technical programs, and those that lead to various certificates and degrees, have given many on public assistance the extra oomph they need to become self-supporting.

But a year after passage of federal legislation limiting the educational options of welfare recipients, community colleges throughout the country are scrambling to ease the impact on current and potential students.

Employment now takes priority over education and training, meaning many will languish in dead-end and low-paying jobs, never to break the cycle of poverty, observers say. And early indications from several states reveal a steep enrollment drop for students on welfare.

"We firmly believe that educating for high-skilled, high-wage jobs is the way to keep people off welfare and help them have a more productive life," says Dr. Deborah L. Floyd, president of Prestonsburg Community College in the heart of Kentucky's Appalachian region. "We feel that while they are students, they should be allowed to have sufficient time to finish college."

Prestonsburg and other community colleges in the state already have witnessed a drop in enrollments among low-income students. Last year, the college enrolled 353 students who also received public assistance. This year, the number has plunged to 147.

Officials say the decline is an early sign that welfare reform will come at a heavy price for residents of the poor Appalachian communities.

It's the same story in Wyoming, where educators worry that the state's get-tough stance on welfare is driving the neediest residents out of college and into the kind of low-paying jobs they went to school to avoid.

Grants managers and placement specialists at three of the state's seven community colleges say about 25 percent fewer low-income students took advantage of assistance programs this fall. Officials at the other colleges either reported a slight decrease, no change, or had no comparable figures.

"The big push here is not to get off welfare with education and training. It's to get off welfare by going to work," says grants manager Bonnie Fiedor at the Northern Wyoming Community College District in Sheridan.

One of the state's top welfare officials concedes that new state and federal policies have something to do with the drop from 367 college students receiving welfare benefits to eighty-two.

But Wyoming Department of Family Services Programs and Policy Division Chief Marianne Lee said the rules changes alone are not necessarily driving low-income students away from education.

"It's not black and white," Lee says. "The changes are not the only factor involved in any human circumstance. If we've learned anything out of welfare reform, it's that."

The welfare reform legislation approved by Congress last year set strict limits on eligibility for public funds. Able-bodied recipients now have a sixty-month lifetime limit on receiving benefits, and they must find work or enroll in programs that are preparing them for employment within a year.

The new law gives states flexibility to design their own welfare programs and many are still developing guidelines. Some allow or encourage job training and education programs and allow participants to meet work requirements by a variety of means. Others are far less favorable toward students.

Fighting the Fear

Regardless of the details, the new rules could force many community college students to drop out of school. Others who wish to pursue more education may be discouraged for fear the time restrictions will prevent them from completing the programs. …

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