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Research: Federal, State Initiatives to Educate

Research: Federal, State Initiatives to Educate
Low-Income Single Mothers Have Societal Benefits

In encouraging low-income single mothers to earn a college education, federal and state governments, along with higher education institutions, will make a solid, long-term investment for the whole society, a Penn State researcher says.

Some policy-makers object to using tax dollars to subsidize a college education for single mothers on partial welfare, notes Dr. Donald E. Heller, associate professor of education at Penn State. They believe that this discriminates against working-class, tax-paying Americans who earn an adequate wage but whose income still leaves them out of reach of a college education. 

But that viewpoint bars single mothers with college aspirations from becoming productive, taxpaying citizens themselves. It’s a no-win situation for everybody, says Heller, also senior research associate with the university’s Center for the Study of Higher Education. Heller and Dr. Stefani A. Bjorklund are co-authors of the chapter, “Student Financial Aid and Low Income Mothers,” in the recent book, Shut Out: Low Income Mothers and Higher Education in Post-Welfare America (State University of New York Press).

“States can help low-income single mothers earn a college degree while still conforming to the ‘welfare reform’ act of 1996,” Heller says. “They can do this by including postsecondary education in their definitions of ‘work-related activities’ while on Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), which in turn would improve the odds that low-income mothers can take enough credit hours to qualify for financial aid from state and federal governments and institutions of higher learning. When states do not recognize college attendance as a work-related activity, the low-income mother is ineligible to receive TANF benefits.”

States can also allocate federal TANF dollars as well as funds not covered by TANF regulations, to help low-income single mothers meet college costs by furnishing cash grants and helping to pay for tuition and support services such as child care, transportation and living stipends, according to Heller. 

As one example, Pennsylvania recently budgeted $750,000 in TANF money to initiate the TANF Educational Award Program (TEAP), which provides need-based assistance of up to $1,200 per academic year to TANF recipients taking undergraduate classes at an approved postsecondary school.

“Educational institutions can support college attendance of low-income mothers by designing flexible schedules, including offering night and weekend courses and compressed semesters to enable students to complete required classes, and allow students to enroll for at least the minimum number of credits required to qualify for certain types of financial aid,” Heller says.

He adds that, even though grant amounts maybe comparatively small, making them part of an entire aid package can significantly enhance the incentive of low-income students to obtain a college degree or professional certificate.

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