Published Online: January 21, 1998



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The 1996 federal welfare law designed to nudge welfare recipients toward meaningful employment may be hindering their ability to attend college, a recent study concludes. Data from states and individual institutions reveal that the postsecondary enrollment of people on welfare has dropped significantly since Congress began requiring welfare recipients to get a job after receiving benefits for two years, according to the study, "Missed Opportunities: A New Look at Disadvantaged College Aspirants." This provision of the welfare law went into effect in the fall of 1996.

At City University of New York, the number of welfare recipients enrolled dropped by 46 percent, from 27,000 in 1995 to 14,500 in 1996; at the Milwaukee Area Technical College, the figure fell by 85 percent, from 1,600 to 244.

The plummeting enrollment of this group of students is an "unintended consequence" of welfare reform, said Jamie P. Merisotis, the president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy, a Washington-based organization that co-sponsored the study with the Boston-based Educational Resources Institute. Both institutes are nonprofit organizations.

"Getting people into jobs is an important first step," Mr. Merisotis said. "But without postsecondary education, their long-term prospects for staying off welfare" are lessened.

Welfare participation is just one of several factors that can inhibit "educationally disadvantaged" people from low-income backgrounds from pursuing education beyond high school, according to the study. Children of parents who are divorced or have not attained college degrees also tend to face higher hurdles on the road to postsecondary education.

Children of divorced parents are less likely to aspire to a postsecondary education and to take the necessary academic steps to prepare themselves for entering college, the study found.

Their average family income is also significantly lower than that of students of married parents, and they're often vulnerable to patchy state laws governing a divorced parent's financial obligation to a college-age child.

The emotional toll of watching a family structure change can also negatively influence a student's aspirations, Mr. Merisotis said.

Meanwhile, students whose parents did not go beyond high school often lack exposure to the social and economic benefits of college. According to the report, they also often fail to take the necessary academic steps for postsecondary preparation.


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