Dreams Deterred: How Federal Policies Keep the Poor Out of College

The school year is nearly over and a swarm of young folks are about to receive their college diplomas. They are fortunate. Mountains of evidence point to the fact that a college degree is the surest route to the middle-class that exists in this country, and is the fuel that we need to power our economy. Support for a college education is strong and bipartisan — indeed both Presidents Clinton and George W. Bush have proclaimed that college should be accessible to all Americans.


But the reality is that America holds a double standard. While middle-class kids have flooded colleges and universities, for some college has become less accessible over the past decade. In particular, two major social policies which had seemingly nothing to do with higher education in fact held serious unforeseen consequences for both schools (particularly community colleges) and their students. The 1996 welfare reform legislation curtailed college access for mothers surviving on the lowest of incomes, and the ironically titled “Workforce Investment Act” of 1998 did the same for both low-income men and women.

I reached these conclusions after conducting research for a book, co-authored with my colleagues Kate Shaw, Jerry Jacobs, and Chris Mazzeo, called Putting Poor People to Work: How the Work-First Idea Eroded College Access for the Poor (Russell Sage Foundation, 2006). Our work included case studies and analyses of college enrollment data in six states (Florida, Illinois, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, and Washington). Between 2001 and 2003 we spoke with 110 state-level officials, analyzed policy documents, interviewed 96 faculty and administrators at 13 community colleges, conducted 11 interviews and four focus groups with low-income workers, and interviewed 13 welfare and WIA caseworkers.

As we traveled from state to state it became abundantly clear that under both welfare reform and the Workforce Investment Act not only were fewer people accessing postsecondary education or training, but when they did they were directed toward the most ineffective forms of short-term training, rather than toward higher quality college-level education. Moreover, the institutions of higher education previously most focused and able to serve low-income adults — American community colleges — were increasingly unable and unwilling to do so, since the resources and incentives previously provided to them under the predecessor policies (Aid to Families with Dependent Children and the Job Training and Partnership Act) were greatly diminished.


One of the primary goals of welfare reform was to kick women off the rolls — and at that the policy was remarkably successful. Between 1996 and 2001 the number of poor mothers receiving assistance dropped by 65%. This decline contributed to much of the decrease in welfare recipients’ access to postsecondary education, but their rate of entry into college also went down. After 1996, none of the six states we studied enrolled even 6% of its public-assistance recipients in college! This meant that literally thousands of women on welfare lost their ability to attend college. For example, in Illinois the number of women attending college while on welfare declined from 8,674 in 1996 (pre-reform) to 1,204 in 2001. Declines were particularly severe among non-white students; today Latinos receiving welfare are now ten times less likely to attend college, compared to similar Latinos not on welfare.

The aftermath of WIA was even worse. Even though the number of people accessing services through WIA rose nationally in four of our six states, the proportion of clients who received education and training dropped significantly in all six. Under WIA’s predecessor, 91% of all clients received some sort of training. By contrast, the percentage of WIA clients receiving training has hovered around 56% for the last several years.

Let’s be clear — welfare reform and WIA do not directly forbid clients from attending college. Instead, the policies limit college access using a complex set of formal and informal rules, incentives, and signals that work to restrict the range of responses of state and local implementers to the needs of clients by making education and training a less attractive and feasible option. In addition, the welfare legislation narrowed the pipeline to college by restricting the time a mother can receive assistance and by setting work requirements both for recipients and for states. To avoid penalties, states must show that half of all cash assistance recipients are working at least 30 hours a week.


WIA narrows the pipeline to job-related training in part through the establishment of one-stop career centers, which offer a hierarchy of services through a system of “sequential eligibility.” The first level provides access to “core” services, such as unassisted access to the Internet for purposes of job searching. If that fails to lead to employment, clients then can receive “core” services, such as help with preparing a resume. The third level, access to education and training, typically is available only to individuals who cannot obtain employment via the first two levels of services.

Very few clients make it through this set-up to step three, and those who do frequently are hand-picked with an eye toward boosting job-placement records. Caseworkers frequently ‘cream’ the most promising WIA clients and provide them with access to high level WIA services because they believe that these clients will produce the best measurable outcomes. Once again, the most disadvantaged clients lose out. A one-stop career center employee told us that he has been in meetings where it has actually been stated that nobody is ever going to get to training because everybody is going to get a job in core or intensive.

The only piece of good news I can offer is that in February the Department of Health and Human Services published some new rules which slightly improved the situation by allowing 12 months of postsecondary education to count as work for welfare recipients. This at least allows mothers a chance to complete a year of college, if they can get the financial assistance they need to pay the tuition. The new rules go into effect October 1, and it is imperative that states embrace this change immediately.


At the end of the twentieth century it is clear that a curious and disturbing paradox emerged in American thinking about the value of education. Despite the indisputable benefits of investing in human capital through education, somehow the public accepted the notion that the poorest among us did not deserve the same access to college as other Americans. Getting off the welfare roles does not mean getting out of poverty. Because they lack the education and skills needed to obtain a good job, most former welfare recipients have simply been transferred to the ranks of the working poor. If we truly want all Americans to become self-sufficient and productive members of society, the solution is simple — we must provide them with the real support they need to pursue a college education. HHS took a step in the right direction this spring — it’s now time for states to make real change happen.

Sara Goldrick-Rab is assistant professor of educational policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.



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