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Perspectives: Welfare Recipients Told They’re Not Wanted In College

“The TANF program was not intended to be a college scholarship program for postsecondary education.” So reads the preamble to the interim final regulations issued by the Department of Health and Human Services on June 29.  Under the regulations, baccalaureate education would no longer be considered work under the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families Program (TANF).

The new rules, published on late last month and open to comment through August 28, were issued to implement the Deficit Reduction Act, PL 109-171, the same legislation that cut $11.9 billion from the student loan programs over five years.

Most simply stated, under the new rules, 50 percent of all single-parent welfare families and 90 percent of all two-parent families have to work in the year starting October 1.  By no longer permitting baccalaureate or advanced enrollment to count as work under the new rules, most states will face greater difficulty in meeting this standard. Those states that fail to meet the standard are penalized financially—they receive a smaller allocation of funding from the $16.5 billion TANF program. 

And with less TANF funds, state support for educational programs for unemployed or severely underemployed people is undermined. Some speculate that the changes could result in thousands of TANF recipients dropping out of college.

Why would Congress and the Administration want to discourage college enrollment among people who arguably would most benefit by it? The answer is not easy to understand. The new rules are intended to reduce the cost of the TANF program by forcing more recipients into “real jobs.” To accomplish this, the rules adopt what Senator Olympia Snowe called a “one-size-fits-all approach that unfairly discriminates against innovative state programs.” Among the state programs that would be undermined are those that are built on the assumption that college education better prepares individuals to succeed in the job market of the 21st century.

Amazingly, the revised rules continue to permit vocational educational training directly related to qualifying an individual for a specific job opportunity, but explicitly exclude baccalaureate and advanced educational programs, which are described as “long term educational activities” that are supported by the Higher Education Act. This viewpoint appears to get two things backwards. First, college education, as compared to vocational education most likely would result in people qualifying for better, more permanent jobs and, it is to be hoped, they would leave the welfare rolls forever. Second, the assumption that the Higher Education Act fully meets the needs of low-income people seeking college education is simply wrong.

The newest draft of the Secretary of Education’s Commission on the Future of Higher Education report expected to be issued by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in September, for example, includes among its findings:

“The value of a postsecondary credential for future employment and earnings is expected to rise. Ninety percent of the fastest-growing jobs in the new knowledge-driven market economy require some postsecondary education. Job categories with the fastest expected growth in the next decade require postsecondary education; those with the greatest expected decline require only on-the-job training. The Department of Labor projects there will be two million new jobs openings in the fields of engineering, computer science, mathematics and physical sciences.

HHS could benefit from talking to the Commission because the net effect of the HHS rules is to effectively exclude TANF benefit recipients from getting the education they need if they are ever to attain these good jobs. Under a cost-benefit analysis, supporting baccalaureate and advanced education rather than vocational education may be more cost effective, although obviously, both forms of education should be supported with TANF dollars.

Let’s also look at another part of the Commission’s findings—one that rebuts the statement that “long term educational activities” are supported under the Higher Education Act.  Is this correct in the case of low-income populations?

Here’s what the Commission’s draft report says: “Higher Education is becoming increasingly unaffordable for students, their families, states and the federal government – and too many low income students are shut out from college altogether.” Multiple studies suggest that, notwithstanding current higher education programs, poor people enroll in and graduate from college at dramatically lower rates than those less needy.

The Commission’s draft also includes a call for the “reexamination and redesign of the federal aid system” and for the elimination of the current federal aid form (the FAFSA) in favor of a simple, one page form. Put another way, the sheer complexity of the current student aid programs is a discouragement to some students who, even if they were to quality, fail to do so because of the uncertainties of the amounts of aid they will receive and the hassles of applying for it.

States have already begun the process of commenting on the new rules, rules that would, by one count, find 45 states out of compliance. Those concerned with college opportunity should respond to the draft interim regulations and weigh in forcefully against this counterproductive, short-sighted change in the rules.

John Dean is a Washington, D.C., attorney and serves as board president of the National College Access Network (


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