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What Has Welfare Reform Meant for Students’ Higher-Education Dreams?

from The Chronicle of Higher Education

By Kelly Field August 22, 2016

A bill signed into law 20 years ago today has had a complex impact on poverty — and on educational attainment, according to Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a policy analyst with the Center for Law and Social Policy.

Twenty years ago today, President Bill Clinton signed into law a bill that sought to reform the nation’s welfare system by imposing new work requirements and placing limits on how long people could receive financial assistance.

The law aimed to cut welfare rolls, and by that measure it has been a success. Far fewer Americans receive cash assistance — now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF — today than in the mid-90s. But the law’s impact on poverty is more debatable. And by adding new work requirements, the welfare-reform bill may have also discouraged low-income parents from one of the surest paths out of poverty: attending college.

The Chronicle spoke with Amy Ellen Duke-Benfield, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Postsecondary and Economic Success at the Center for Law and Social Policy, about how public benefits — including cash assistance and food support offered under the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, or SNAP — can help or hinder college completion. The following is an edited and condensed version of that conversation.

Q. Let’s start with the positive. Public benefits can help bridge the gap between financial aid and students’ cost of living, reducing the “unmet need” that can delay or derail low-income students. Which benefits are they most likely to qualify for, and what is the maximum they can receive?

Helping Students Seek Social Services

Even at colleges that try to keep tuition and fees under control, it’s other living expenses that often delay or derail adult students.

A. Public benefits are often dependent on a student’s family status. Low-income students who are parents are likely to be eligible for SNAP — food stamps — and Medicaid. Depending on the state, they might receive cash assistance and help paying for child care. Low-income students who don’t have children living with them would usually only qualify for SNAP if they are working or assigned to school as part of a training program. And whether they get Medicaid would often depend on whether their state had expanded Medicaid. In those states that expanded Medicaid under the Affordable Care Act, many more low-income students are eligible than previously.

The maximum monthly value of SNAP benefits for a single individual is $194 and for a family of three is $511, which someone would receive if she had no other income. The value of TANF benefits varies greatly from state to state, but is $428 a month for a family of three in the median state, with the benefit value ranging from $170 (in Mississippi) to $923 (in Alaska) in 2015. Being eligible for Medicaid can significantly decrease a student’s health-care costs.

Q. Who decides which students are eligible for public benefits — the feds? States? Both?

A. Most of these public-benefits programs, like SNAP, TANF, child-care subsidies, and Medicaid, are administered by states within a federal framework. State rules differ especially for TANF and child-care subsidies. You see great variation in whether and how long TANF recipients can attend postsecondary education and training — or, with child-care subsidies, whether a low-income student must combine work with school to receive assistance. SNAP rules are largely set by the federal government, although how they are implemented may vary by state.

Q. Do we have any idea how many college students, nationally, are receiving public benefits — and whether this number has increased over time?

A. A 2013 study found that 18.6 percent of students reported a public benefit. We know that benefit receipt is often underreported, so that may be a low estimate.

Trends over time are hard to measure, because the question hasn’t been asked consistently. We do know the number of college students receiving TANF cash assistance dropped dramatically after welfare reform because of new time limits on education and training that sharply limited access, and because the total number of people receiving cash assistance dropped so much.

Q. How much evidence is there that public benefits improve retention and completion?

A. We don’t have much evidence at this point because it hasn’t been closely studied. In the Benefits Access for College Completion demonstration project that included seven community colleges and ran from 2012 to 2014, the evaluators found that benefits access can positively impact students’ academic progress. Gateway Community and Technical College (in Kentucky) found that students who receive public benefits are more likely to enroll for more terms. More research needs to be conducted, but we know that an additional $1,000 in financial aid leads to a 4-percent increase in college attendance, so why wouldn’t $2,000 in SNAP benefits have the same positive effect?

Q. Under the welfare-reform bill, states face a penalty if they fail to meet work-participation targets for families receiving welfare. Does attending college count toward this quota? If so, to what degree?

A. The TANF work-participation rate discourages states from engaging recipients in education and training activities. Except during the one year for which vocational education or college can be counted as a full-time “core activity,” education and training is generally only countable when combined with at least 20 hours per week of another core activity, such as employment or community service.

Except for teens, basic education can never be counted as a stand-alone activity, and vocational education and training can only be counted on its own for 12 months in a participants’ lifetime. Given the unpredictably shifting hours of many low-wage jobs, it can be difficult for recipients to combine education and training with employment. Many recipients are simply denied the opportunity to meet any of their participation requirements through education. In some cases, states require all recipients to be searching for a job, while others discourage local TANF offices or contractors from assigning recipients to activities that cannot be counted toward the federal work-participation rate.

Q. Research shows that working more than 20 hours a week and attending college part-time lowers completion rates. Do work requirements reduce the odds that students receiving welfare will graduate?

A. I don’t know that we have solid evidence of this directly, but it seems likely that recipients may drop out, or may drop off of benefits and then leave college for economic reasons. And we know that attending school but not getting a degree or certificate is the worst possible outcome.

We have national credential goals, and the president has said every American should have at least one year of postsecondary education and training, leading to a credential. Yet our anti-poverty programs have rules that directly contradict those goals by requiring too many work hours in combination with education, or time limiting education and training to such a degree that it hampers the ability of low-income students to attain credentials that allow them to get a family-supporting job.

Q. The research also shows that many eligible students don’t seek out benefits. Why is that?

A. There are any number of reasons low-income students aren’t accessing the benefits for which they are eligible. Many low-income students don’t realize that benefits are available, or are told incorrectly that they are not eligible.

For some, the stigma associated with receiving benefits is simply too great to outweigh the benefits that such financial support can offer. You can try to explain how this is a temporary support that won’t be necessary after graduating and securing a job with good wages, but sometimes the resistance is too great.

Applying for benefits can be a complex process — even more complex than the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, if you can believe it. Students may try to apply and fail or come to the conclusion that it’s not worth the effort. They may sit in a state social-services office waiting room for several hours, trying to squeeze it in between classes, and mistakenly think it’s not worth it.

And others may wrongly assume receiving benefits will lead to a lower financial-aid award — or worry it could impact their immigration status.

Q. How can colleges help students overcome some of these barriers to benefits access?

A. Colleges can help students access public benefits in a variety of ways, such as educating students about their potential eligibility, prescreening and screening students, and helping them apply for benefits. Most states allow you to apply for benefits online, which makes it easier for a college to help students apply.

Colleges have learned that it is a more effective strategy to engage and support students by requiring them to opt out of benefits-access services [rather than hope they will opt in] — by connecting benefits access with existing academic and nonacademic support students already were likely to seek.

These benefits can help students overcome their thousands of dollars of unmet need, allowing them to take out fewer student loans or even increase their enrollment intensity.

Meet Higher Education’s Newest Players: ‘Education Sherpas’

From The Chronicle of Higher Education

By Goldie Blumenstyk

August 16, 2016

Alice Kemokai pulls a decaf shot from a gleaming new espresso machine and hands it off to Dalia Garcia, who pours steamed milk tentatively into a tilted cup, drawing a leaf design in froth. Steps away in this airy space that was once an oil-change garage, Frankie Rodarte stands at the iPad cash register and role-plays serving customers, describing the kind of “spiritual hospitality” she plans to offer in two weeks when Prodigy Coffee opens for business for real.

The scene isn’t just about twenty-something apprentices mastering the perfect latte in a funky new cafe. Prodigy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching self-direction skills to out-of-work young adults along with the barista training. Apprentices like Ms. Roadarte, 20, who is interested in building on her GED to study small-business management, will be expected to set personal goals for themselves and record self-reflections on video at their end of each shift. They’ll receive financial-literacy training, career guidance, and directed activities designed to improve their skills of communication, creativity, and collaboration. Prodigy will also assign the apprentices a local “mobility mentor” to connect them to the next steps in their lives.

It’s an example of a new kind of player emerging on the higher-education scene: a learner advocate or, as some proponents of the concept call it, an “education sherpa.”

Much in the way professional patient advocates help sick people navigate the often-confusing medical system, the idea behind the education sherpa is that many students, particularly those from low-income households or who are the first in their families to attend college, need better guidance to make their way through the higher-ed maze or even to first identify and gain access to the right educational resources they need for their careers. Today barely half of all students who start college graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years. And increasingly, students’ paths toward their degrees are far from linear; more than a third of students transfer at least once during their college years, according to the National Student Clearinghouse. Of those, nearly half change institutions more than once.

The need is compounded, advocates say, as the options for postsecondary education continue to expand — with the rise of competency-based degrees, MOOCs, microdegree offerings, and courses and degrees from alternative providers.

For students “who are really motivated” and understand their options, the flexibility and alternatives in the system are an opportunity, says Harrison Keller, who coordinates academic innovation at the University of Texas at Austin. But, he adds, “we have not put commensurate energy into support structures.” In June Mr. Keller was one of several higher-education leaders who attended a Department of Education “innovation summit” in Washington, D.C., where he and others raised the idea that new forms of student support were needed.

“There’s this romantic idea that all these options are available, and students are going to be able to navigate DIY education,” he says. But without more supports, the new options could just as easily exacerbate inequality because “the students with more resources at their disposal and more of a safety net will have an easier time.”

When students don’t graduate or take longer than necessary to do so, that can also add to their student debt and become costly for taxpayers, so much so that some education reformers have started talking about changing the student-aid systems so that needy students could use federal or state dollars to pay for an education sherpa to advise them.

As one group that promotes the idea, Education Design Lab, puts it, such education guides could help future students be “untethered from any one institution over the course of their learning journey” to plot their path toward a degree or career.”

Tapping Existing Funding

Education sherpas are a fundamental component of the experimental new model for education being explored by an organization based here, the Donnell-Kay Foundation. Known as ReSchool Colorado, the four-year-old project would create a completely new kind of publicly funded education system that would operate alongside traditional preschools, elementary and secondary schools, and colleges. The foundation has been testing prototypes of the system for the past year and hopes to get the idea of its alternative education system on a statewide ballot, possibly as early as the fall of 2018.


The New Education Landscape

Under the model ReSchool envisions, students and families could use existing government funding streams — including Pell Grants and a proportionate share of state appropriations for schools and colleges — to choose from an array of educational opportunities “across a landscape of providers.” At the postsecondary level, that could mean traditional colleges, but it might also include programs offered by museums or another nontraditional learning provider.

The sherpas would be part of the system’s publicly funded “learner advocate network” that students and families would consult to help them find and evaluate learning partners and help shape their educational pathways. “We knew early in the design that the learner advocate was essential,” says Colleen Broderick, Donnell-Kay’s chief learning designer.

That’s where places like Prodigy Coffee could come in. Although it began operations separately from the foundation — the brainchild of a teacher-turned-social entrepreneur named Stephanie Frances — Prodigy is one of five local organizations serving low-income 17-to-21-year-olds that Donnell-Kay is studying this summer to see how it might fit within the ReSchool model.

The ReSchool experiment is in many ways a model of the unbundled education environment that many reformers predict will be the future of postsecondary learning — a future where education sherpas would by necessity play a key role.

Meanwhile, some advocates of the sherpa idea have already raised it with the U.S. Department of Education. One of them is Richard A. DeMillo, executive director of the Center for 21st Century Universities at the Georgia Institute of Technology, who has proposed new Education Savings Accounts that low-income students could use to pay for advising if, for example, they attend a high school where counseling is ineffective. In the proposal he sent to the department, Mr. DeMillo calls these education sherpas “a new category of educational general practitioners not beholden to any specific institution.” Or, innovative colleges might take on the role of advising students on how to connect their own offerings with outside offerings, he adds.

“This could become a specialty” Mr. DeMillo says in an interview. He says he has no single model in mind, except that the “the overarching idea is, don’t take this kind of funding and pour it all into tuition.”

Education Department officials have not publicly commented on Mr. DeMillo’s idea and did not respond directly to a question about the idea of using federal funds for this sort of advising service. But in a written response, Ted Mitchell, the under secretary, noted that a study has shown that “institutions with high completion rates for Pell-eligible students are also institutions that have developed strong systems of student support.” The department could also try out the idea using its experimental program called EQUIP, but creating a new spending program would be something that requires action by Congress.

‘Overwhelmingly Receptive’ Students

As it turns out, variations on the education-sherpa idea already exist.

Just a few miles from Mr. Keller’s campus in Austin, Texas, for example, a nonprofit organization called PelotonU provides face-to-face coaching and advising to 50 local students who are employed in the Austin area and enrolled in competency-based degree programs offered by such institutions as Western Governors and Southern New Hampshire Universities. PelotonU, which is largely funded by grants and donations, has recently begun asking its clients who receive Pell Grants to allocate some of that money toward PelotonU’s costs.

“Students have been overwhelmingly receptive,” says Hudson Baird, a cofounder of the organization. The coaching by PelotonU’s education sherpas is a key factor in the 87-percent persistence rate PelotonU has seen with its students, says Mr. Baird. The average age of PelotonU’s students is 29 and the majority of them tried college previously but never finished. Pell Grants were originally designed to promote access to college, Mr. Baird notes, but with growing concerns about the “broken promises” of the system, he says the idea of using federal funds to pay education sherpas who help students persist and graduate is well worth considering.

And here in Denver, a couple of miles from Prodigy Coffee, is an education venture with a similar strategy. Guild Education is a start-up company that helps working students navigate through college in collaboration with their employers and their tuition-assistance programs. Students enrolled through Guild get a mentor who advises them on both their educational options and career-advancement opportunities, as well as special tuition prices from Guild’s education partners. As a student, you get “one point of contact who has your back as you advance in higher education,” says Rachel Romer Carlson, a cofounder of Guild.

According to Guild, one of the highest predictors of a student’s success in college is having the phone number of a trusted mentor. “It’s so true, and so obvious, and so missing,” says Ms. Romer. It’s also the reason she’d like to see the rules for Pell Grants rewritten so students could more easily use the money to pay for advising and mentoring, not just course credits. “We’re in a world where there’s great content anywhere,” she says, “What students need is the rest.”

Of course what constitutes “the rest” — and who or what kind of organization should provide it — are just a couple of the unanswered questions about the future of education sherpas.

While better advising could actually save the government money, many groups are bound to oppose the additional spending required for the idea and the additional bureaucracy it could spawn.

And who would decide what amounts to a quality education adviser?

As the University of Texas’ Mr. Keller observes, the sherpas would need to understand the various pathways students might take: “You don’t want just more well-intentioned but uninformed advice.”