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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.

The issue is foremost on the minds of community college educators
throughout the country, according to officials at the American
Association of Community Colleges (AACC). Association officials have
taken their concerns to Capitol Hill, advocating for the inclusion of
work study, vocational education, and other programs as acceptable work

Last month, the association started publishing Welfare Watch, a
monthly newsletter for college presidents that provides information on
welfare-to-work grants, presents implementation strategies, and
profiles model welfare-to-work programs around the country.

Dr. Brice Harris, who chairs a joint commission on federal
relations for the association and the Association for Community College
Trustees, led a workshop on the topic earlier this year. He says
welfare reform has become one the greatest concerns of community
college presidents in every state because the colleges are seen as
primary providers of such services.

“We are noticing an increasing fear on the part of students because
they don’t know how the [state] regulations are going to shake out,”
says Harris, chancellor of the Los Rios Community College District in

“They think their only alternative is to go to work” and that
education is no longer an option, Harris says. “A lot of students don’t
wait to have someone officially tell them what the policy will be.”

That reality has put the onus on community colleges to act quickly
and aggressively. At Los Rios colleges and other institutions, staff
members are getting the word out that they are finding ways to
accommodate all students who want to pursue higher education.

Working with local social services agencies, colleges are trying to
get as many of their programs as possible onto approved lists. And they
are squeezing programs into shorter time periods to allow students to
meet time restrictions.

Additionally, they are applying for grants to fund scholarships,
child care, and expenses for students who are otherwise motivated to
complete their education.

In California, the challenge is great. Some 140,000 students, or 10
percent of all those who attend the state’s 106 community colleges, are
dependent on welfare benefits. Earlier this year, the state legislature
awarded the community college system $65 million in extra funding to
assist welfare recipients in the transition to employment.

However, officials say the money is inadequate for the task. They
also complain that some degree programs — and those that prepare
students to transfer to four-year institutions — may not qualify,
according to Connie Anderson, the California Community Colleges’
coordinator for CalWORKS, the state’s welfare-to-work program.

“We’re going to have to try real hard to package together programs
with work study and work experience that will allow students to
complete programs and meet work requirements,” Anderson says. “Just how
many students we’re going to lose is hard to tell, but we’re going to
lose a lot.”

Developing Viable Options

Elsewhere, officials in Kentucky already are tallying losses. In
the eastern part of the state, isolated by poverty and the Appalachian
mountains, several community colleges have witnessed enrollment
declines of students on public aid.

For students who often have to start college in remedial or basic
literacy courses, meeting the new time requirements and federal
financial aid regulations that prohibit funding for the preparatory
classes often pose insurmountable obstacles to their educational

“We see ourselves as the educational advocate for these students.
But when you can’t tell a student that their aid will be available to
them for a two- or three-year period, they cannot continue,” says Dr.
G. Edward Hughes, president of Kentucky’s Hazard Community College. “We
know that there is no way they can complete a nursing program and work
twenty to thirty hours a week.”

The new welfare requirements are even more onerous in Wyoming. The
changes, which took effect July 1, are twice as stringent as the
federal requirements. Wyoming residents receiving living assistance
benefits must work forty hours per week, or spend that time looking for
work or performing community service.

Wyoming is the only state, college officials say, that continued
providing benefits to needy college students. However in order to
qualify students must work at least thirty-two hours per week for ten
of the sixteen weeks prior to the start of benefits.

The new summer work requirement appears to have kept some students
on the job and away from college career exploration programs, says
Kathleen Higgins of Western Wyoming College in Rock Springs.

Barbara Ochiltree at Casper College says of the eighty-one students
she helped obtain federal grant assistance last spring, thirty-five did
not return this fall.

Officials in Sheridan and Cheyenne, however, say the number of
students taking advantage of federal funds available to low-income
students and people entering fields traditionally dominated by the
opposite gender has held steady.

Many who stayed in school are still getting food stamps and medical
aid, Fiedor says. But she adds that few of them now qualify for
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families, the program that replaced
Assistance to Families with Dependent Children.

At Eastern Wyoming College in Torrington, Dean of Students Billy
Bates says he doesn’t have conclusive figures but believes the school
has lost several low-income students.

“I think they’re just grabbing whatever job comes available,” he says.

And because of the sluggishness of the Wyoming economy, Bates says
he expects students that haven’t acquired the training and education
they need to land better jobs will end up back on the welfare rolls.

In Kentucky, Hazard hopes to create a family life transition center
to act as the education broker for the area’s neediest residents. The
one-stop center would provide information on academic options, local
social services and transportation agencies to make school more
feasible for residents in the isolated mountain community.

That kind of response, and the malleable nature that has become the
trademark of community colleges nationwide, should help ease the
difficult transition from welfare to work, Harris says.

“If we are going to have a global economy and be a competitive workforce, we cannot leave people behind,” he says,

Instead of losing potential students to welfare reform, his
district aims to increase the number of welfare recipients who turn to
the community college for help by as much as 50 percent.

“We’re the only real edge these people have. I’ve never seen such a
willingness on the part of a variety of agencies to cooperate for the
benefit of the client,” says Harris. “We’re seeing people pull out all
the stops to come up with viable solutions.”

COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates

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