The University Record, March 4, 2002

Study: Students on welfare get little help

By Judy Steeh
News and Information Services

According to a report released last week by the Center for the Education of Women (CEW), state policies discourage current or former welfare recipients from obtaining associate’s or bachelor’s degrees, even though research has shown that completion of post-secondary education increases welfare recipients’ wages much more rapidly than does work experience. The report was researched and written by the Coalition for Independence Through Education, a statewide group of educators, researchers and advocates, including CEW and the Saginaw-based Center for Civil Justice.

“We believe that Michigan is missing a great opportunity to get people who are receiving public assistance into permanent jobs that pay enough so that they can actually support their families,” says Elizabeth Sullivan, program manager for policy and advocacy at CEW. “That’s costing the state a lot of money in the long run.” The report documents how over the long term, Michigan would save millions as recipients end their need for both cash and non-cash forms of public assistance.

The report is based on a survey of students at 14 community colleges, colleges and universities in Michigan who are on welfare. The responses led the researchers to four major conclusions.

First, low-income student-parents are discouraged from educational options and receive negative messages from state agencies about possible educational options. Only 7 percent of respondents reported receiving encouragement for their educational plans from the Family Independence Agency (FIA) or Work First, the two agencies with which most public assistance recipients must work. On the other hand, 45 percent commented that they received the message that education is not a priority. As one respondent put it, “I feel like I am being penalized for going to school. No matter how I try to better my situation all they care about is the number of hours I work.”

Second, there is a negative impact on academic performance and parenting when parents try to comply with work requirements while they are attending post-secondary education. “In the first place, students are not allowed to count education time as work time at all until they are in the final year of a two- or four-year program. This means that they have to work as many hours as they are offered, on any shifts available, and then try to fit in class time and studying as best they can. It can be an impossible situation,” Sullivan explains. A woman who graduated from a nursing program last April said, “It was very difficult trying to work 20 hours a week, have 17 hours of clinical, plus four hours of lecture, also 10–15 hours of study time a week. God has helped me, FIA sure didn’t.”

A third conclusion was that student parents received little or no assistance with childcare expenses for hours spent in education programs. Student parents said that the limited availability and the expense of safe, dependable childcare was one of the biggest obstacles they faced as they tried to finish college.

Finally, the report concluded that too many public assistance clients receive misinformation or no information from state agencies about education opportunities. “The Michigan legislature has required FIA and DCD to have clear joint guidelines on eligibility for education and training support, but the survey showed that low income parents are not receiving accurate and consistent information about education,” Sullivan says. Often different agencies, even with the best of intentions, provide different information, she added.

Another problem, Sullivan said, is that caseworkers tend to point women, especially, toward quick certification programs that will get them on the job market sooner, rather than toward longer programs that will eventually lead to better paying jobs. “The entire emphasis is on immediate work force attachment, regardless of the long-term benefit for the client or the state,” she says.

Sullivan is quick to note that the report does not advocate paying the full costs of attending college. “Welfare recipients would need to participate in work study and other financial aid programs, just like everyone else. It’s about setting up a situation in which they don’t have to work 40 hours a week and then go to school,” she says.

To see a copy of the report, visit CEW’s Web site at www.umich.edu/~cew/cfite.html. For more information, contact Elizabeth Sullivan, (734) 998-7225 bsulliva@umich.edu, or Jeanne Miller, (734) 998-7080 or jemiller@umich.edu.