July 25, 2018: COUNCIL OF STATE GOVERNMENTS - State Policies to Increase Access to Higher Education for Single Parents

July 25, 2018

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By Mikayla Mitchell, CSG intern, and Elizabeth Whitehouse, CSG Center of Innovation director

According to the Institute for Women's Policy Research, 26 percent of college undergraduate students are raising dependent children. Single mothers comprise 43 percent of the total student parent population and 11 percent are single fathers. However, many colleges and universities are geared toward 18 to 24-year-olds without children who still receive parental support, overlooking this large portion of degree-seeking students.

Many single parents qualify to receive government assistance based on their incomes, but federal policies aimed at reforming welfare programs have added complications for single parents in school. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 established Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF), placing a maximum limit of postsecondary education while receiving benefits to one year of vocational training. As a result, many single parents dropped out of college and pursued a low-wage full-time job instead.

If these single parents had stayed in school, they could have found self-sustaining employment, saving state welfare funds in the long run. In Michigan, the state saves an average of $6,696 per year in child care benefits alone when a single parent finds secure employment with their degree rather than a low-wage job.

In response to federal welfare reform, states passed legislation to support low-income parents in achieving higher education. Leading the way, the Maine Legislature passed Chapter 1054-B in 1997 establishing the Parents as Scholars (PaS) Program. PaS provides funding to any eligible TANF recipients enrolled in a two-year or four-year degree program, assisting with occupational expenses, books and supplies, child care, transportation-related expenses, dental and eye care, and up to $500 in car repairs. Class time and study time count toward the 20-hour work requirement per week. In one study, nine out of 10 participants in the program experienced positive outcomes and improved family finances.

Expanding upon the success of the program, Maine Speaker of the House Sara Gideon’s Leveraging Investments in Families Today (LIFT) legislation passed with bipartisan support in 2018. This bill increases access to higher education and training for low-income families to create sustainable pathways out of poverty by establishing the Higher Opportunity Pathways to Employment (HOPE) Program. Modeled after PaS, HOPE uses federal TANF funds for families at or below 185 percent of the federal poverty level pursuing a post-secondary degree.

“When people can make ends meet, it helps families while growing the economy. At the same time, it will increase the numbers of higher skilled workers badly needed by Maine’s employers and our economy,” Gideon stated in a press release.

Maine state Sen. Amy Volk, another supporter of the bill, said, “If we are just helping people financially without helping them gain skills, or providing child care while they receive those skills, they will not be able to get out of the rut they are in. By providing assistance through education or skilled training programs, we can assist them with the process of changing their life and, by extension, their children’s lives.”

Since the passage of Maine’s PaS program, other states joined in enacting similar welfare reform. Kentucky allows for up to two years of higher education while receiving welfare with no other work requirements. Illinois state policy supports up to four years of postsecondary education for welfare recipients. California allows education to count toward their work requirement for 18-24 months if the recipient was already enrolled in school.

California state Sen. Holly Mitchell worked to repeal the state’s Maximum Family Grant (MFG) rule, which prohibited a woman from receiving more aid when she had an additional child.

“Under the MFG, we undermined the families CalWORKS was designed to serve by unnecessarily keeping them from receiving the benefits they need in order to achieve self-sufficiency,” Mitchell said. “As a result of the repeal,126,000 children from over 90,000 families were aided, which increased their family grant.”

States are supporting single parents outside of welfare reform through programs such as California’s Cooperative Agencies Resources for Education, which provides counseling, school supplies, textbooks, transportation, and financial and child care assistance to low-income single parents with a child under age 14. The Oregon Student Child Care Grant Program provides state funding for child care expenses to a parent enrolled in a postsecondary degree program in Oregon. Maine's Competitive Skills Scholarship Program (CSSP) assists individuals seeking a post-secondary education or training in a field that has been identified as a “high-wage occupation in demand” by covering tuition and providing financial support for child care, transportation, school supplies, and dental and eye care.

Volk believes programs like CSSP help the economy overall.

“By assisting low-income parents in their quest to gain an education or skilled training, we are assisting them in gaining reliable employment, ultimately getting more money into their pockets, both of which benefit the economy. When people are succeeding, we see our economy boosted, as well,” she said.