Higher education for single low-income moms benefits society

November 30, 2004

In encouraging low-income single mothers to earn a college education, federal and state governments, along with higher education institutions, will make a solid, long-term investment for the whole society, a Penn State researcher says.

Some policymakers object to using tax dollars to subsidize a college education for single mothers on partial welfare, notes Dr. Donald E. Heller, associate professor of education. They apparently believe that this discriminates against working-class, tax-paying Americans who earn an adequate wage but whose income still leaves them out of reach of a college education.

But that viewpoint bars single mothers with college aspirations from becoming productive, taxpaying citizens themselves. It's a no-win situation for everybody, says Heller, also senior research associate with the University's Center for the Study of Higher Education. Heller and Stefani A. Bjorklund, a recent Ph.D. graduate, are co-authors of the chapter, "Student Financial Aid and Low Income Mothers," in the recent book, "Shut Out: Low Income Mothers and Higher Education in Post-Welfare America" (State University of New York Press).

The 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act (PRWORA), popularly known as the "welfare reform" act, substituted the open-ended federal program, Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), with Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF). This revised welfare code mandated new work requirements to qualify for TANF support and imposed a 5-year lifetime limit on receiving welfare payments. Under TANF, the federal government shifted responsibility for administering welfare benefits to the states by means of block grants.

"States can help low-income single mothers earn a college degree while still conforming to the 'welfare reform' act of 1996," Heller says. "They can do this by including post-secondary education in their definitions of 'work-related activities' while on TANF, which in turn would improve the odds that low-income mothers can take enough credit hours to qualify for financial aid from state and federal governments and institutions of higher learning. When states do not recognize college attendance as a work-related activity, the low-income mother is ineligible to receive TANF benefits."

States can also allocate federal TANF dollars, as well as funds not covered by TANF regulations, to help low-income single mothers meet college costs by furnishing cash grants and helping to pay for tuition and support services such as child care, transportation and living stipends, according to Heller.

As one example, Pennsylvania recently budgeted $750,000 in TANF money to initiate the TANF Educational Award Program (TEAP), which provides need-based assistance of up to $1,200 per academic year to TANF recipients taking undergraduate classes at an approved post-secondary school.

"Educational institutions can support college attendance of low-income mothers by designing flexible schedules, including offering night and weekend courses and compressed semesters to enable students to complete required classes, and allow students to enroll for at least the minimum number of credits required to qualify for certain types of financial aid," Heller says.

He adds that, even though grant amounts may be comparatively small, making them part of an entire aid package can significantly enhance the incentive of low-income students to obtain a college degree or professional certificate.

Penn State

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