Welfare Reform Expected to Restrict College Access
She’s had many labels to describe her since her parents kicked her
out of their comfortable middle-class home in southern California and
onto the streets at age thirteen. Over the next fifteen years, Sallie
Shows would come to be known as a street kid, a pregnant teenager, a
crack cocaine addict, an unfit parent, and a welfare mother-of-six.
Today, amazingly, she is called a success story. The
twenty-eight-year-old Mountain View, Calif., woman is a straight-A
student who enrolled in Santa Clara University last fall.
“I don’t believe in lifetime welfare — that
lay-on-the-couch-and-collect-the-money thing,” says Shows, who
graduated last year from Foothill College with honors and an
But Shows, who still receives public assistance, likely will pay a
heavy price for her efforts to pull herself out of poverty and become a
clinical psychologist. The new welfare reform law passed last year by
Congress limits access to college to one year while on welfare. At the
same time, it requires recipients to work twenty hours a week. Those
who don’t abide by the provisions would lose most or all of their
benefits. Most people on public assistance will have to settle for
training certificates rather than a degree.
While hesitant to criticize the general
get-off-welfare-and-get-a-job trend, some educators and social policy
experts say the law has serious flaws that ultimately may make the
reforms self-defeating by dooming many to dead-end jobs and more
“College students all over the country on welfare will be thrown
out,” says Dr. Marilyn Gittell, a national expert on welfare and higher
education. “It’s an outrageous policy. President Clinton has said that
he wants everyone to get two years of college education. Yet these
people are going to be thrown out of college? It doesn’t make sense.”
A Lack of Statistical Data
Gittell, the director of the Howard Samuels Policy Center at the
City University of New York’s Graduate Center, completed a study
several years ago of welfare mothers in six states. Her research showed
that the women, if enrolled in special programs to aid them at the same
time they attended college maintained similar grades as other students.
Experts say it’s difficult to predict how many students would be
forced out of college because colleges don’t normally keep track of
students on welfare. Similarly, welfare agencies don’t usually
calculate how many people on public assistance attend college.
Dozens of college and university chancellors and presidents
nationwide recently formed a new National Coalition for the Education
of Welfare Recipients, which will lobby for the right of welfare
recipients to gain college credentials.
“Higher education has proven to be a viable and expedient route to
moving individuals and families towards productive employment and more
enriched lives” said Chancellor W. Ann Reynolds of The City University
of New York, one of the members of the coalition. The coalition is
composed of sixty-three leaders in higher education in eighteen states,
the U.S. Virgin Islands and Washington, D.C., many of whose
institutions enroll these students.
Government statistics show that more than 4.8 million American
families are listed on the welfare rolls. Of those, 37.2 percent are
African Americans, 35.6 percent are white, 20.7 percent are Hispanic, 3
percent are Asian American and 1.3 percent are Native Americans.
Perhaps a more telling statistic is this: Roughly half those people
don’t have a high school diploma or equivalency diploma, says Julie
Strawn, a senior policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social
Policy. And among long-term recipients of welfare, that number climbs
Although firm numbers are hard to come by, Strawn, who also tracked
welfare reform issues for the National Governors’ Association,
estimates that 400,000 to 500,000 people who receive government
assistance — less than 5 percent — are enrolled in college.
State-by-state breakdowns are nonexistent. But California officials
estimate that 125,000 college students are on public assistance and
City University of New York officials say 27,000 of their students —
or 10 percent — are on welfare.
For some welfare recipients trying to get an education, whether or
not they receive a degree hinges on the state in which they reside.
“There is nothing to prevent states from assisting single mothers
in their postsecondary endeavors,” says Strawn. “The states can spend
the money in any way they believe will reduce welfare. But unless
states really approach this thoughtfully, a lot of people could be
forced out of college because the signals from the federal government
are about work, nc>t work training.”
“Forget it, your education is over.”
Massachusetts may provide a picture of what is to come. In that
state, officials implemented a welfare reform measure two years ago,
and research indicates the restrictions are driving students on welfare
out of college.
“In two years, we’ve had a decline from 234 students on welfare to
123,” says Dr. Barbara Viniar, president of Berkshire Community
College. “Some are telling people, `Forget it, your education is over.”‘
State records show that Massachusetts has reduced its welfare
caseload 28 percent. But the number of people on public assistance in
college also has dropped 36 percent, on average.
“The kinds of jobs people are getting may count as statistics —
but they don’t change lives,” complains Viniar “Who is going to come
back in two years and look at these people, working in minimum-wage
jobs with no benefits and no child care? We are not preparing people
for true workforce development — which means entry onto a ladder, a
job that gives growth potential and goes hand in hand with education.”
Gittell also blasts the new welfare law’s one-year training
provision, saying previous studies have shown that such training
programs “have all been a failure…. What in the world, in one year,
are you going to train people to do who can’t even read? Sweep the
park? We don’t need a one-Year training program for that.”
Regardless, community college leaders feverishly are -working on
creative ways to cram the most effective education and training
possible into such a limited time frame. The law mandates that states
reduce their welfare rolls by 40 percent over the first two years.
After five years, it calls for an 80 percent reduction in the number of
“It’s clear we are going to have train these people somehow,” says
Strawn. “Otherwise, states will have a substantial number of families
who are not making it in the labor market and who have exhausted their
time limit on welfare. I don’t think anybody wants to see that happen.
“The big question is are the mainstream education and training
institutions going to be willing and able to change the way they
operate their programs to accommodate these people,” she says. “That’s
a big hurdle.”
Thomas J. Nussbaum, chancellor of the California community college
system, has declared that dealing with the fallout from welfare reform
is a top priority for the state’s 106 college districts.
“We are already behind the eight ball,” says Dr. Piedad Robertson,
the president of Santa Monica College and member of California
Community Colleges’ task force on welfare reform. “It’s going to take
creative thinking. It cannot be business as usual. We have to look at
creating new certificate programs that are very job-oriented.
“It’s not what I prefer, but it’s what the law provides,” she adds.
“I could quote you success stories about [welfare] recipients going to
college, but that is in the past. That’s what I cannot do [now]. And
though I bemoan that I have lost that ability, I must react the best I
can because I am still concerned for the same reasons I’m concerned
about the people.
Robertson says colleges, in the limited time they have welfare
recipients on campus for training, should try to instill the value of
education so that they will return later for more education.
In an economically distressed region of Kentucky, where President
Lyndon Johnson traveled to thirty years ago to declare his war on
poverty, Dr. Deborah L. Floyd also is worried.
“What has made a difference in our region is an investment in
education,” says Floyd, president of Prestonburg Community College,
which currently has about 400 welfare recipients on campus. “This [law]
does not invest in education.”
Even so, unemployment has reached about 10 percent in that part of
Kentucky and underemployment has climbed to about 40 percent. Floyd
fears the limited training won’t be enough.
“They’ll likely get a low-skill, low-wage job,” she says. “To be
quite honest, unless someone is making $9 to $14 an hour, you can’t
make a go of it.”
Worse, she says, “72 percent of our students need remedial
education. We are not likely to be able to provide much high-skill,
high-wage training in a twelve-month period.”
And What of Sallie?
Experts also say the new welfare order ignores ancillary, but
pressing, issues — such as child care, transportation, counseling and
other support services.
Shows attends Santa Clara University with the help of scholarships,
grants and student loans to pay the $15,000 tuition. Subsidized day
care also helps. She says she hasn’t had time to follow the raging
debate on welfare that has important ramifications for her educational
“I’m going to get as much schooling as I can before I get hit with
this stuff,” she says. “I’m not going to let welfare reform hinder
Even before the reforms took hold, Shows says that state welfare
workers often discouraged recipients of public assistance from pursuing
an education. She recalls one welfare worker telling her “to shut up”
when she began telling another welfare mom about programs that helped
her attend Foothill College in Los Altos, Calif.
“It’s frustrating,” she says. “Why couldn’t I? Why can’t other
welfare mothers? Why can’t we go to Stanford University if we want to?
Clearly, we have to want to. But, if people tell you enough that you
can’t, you begin to believe it.”
COPYRIGHT 1997 Cox, Matthews & Associates
© Copyright 2005 by DiverseEducation.com