This welfare reform program could be a model to help impoverished college students

By Danielle Douglas-Gabriel

When Will Bradford enrolled at Northwest Arkansas Community College in January 2015, it had been 15 years since he had stepped foot in a classroom. He had taken a few college classes after high school, but dropped out in a matter of weeks.

“I just didn’t have the motivation,” Bradford, 35, recalls. But with two young boys to care for, getting an education took on a new importance, especially if it meant earning more money. Even with his newfound motivation, Bradford was no less intimidated. “I was nervous about how much work would be involved and whether I was overdoing it with a full-time job, but a lot of it was just getting back into the school system,” he said.

Enter Arkansas Career Pathways Initiative, a program funded by the federal welfare program, known as Temporary Assistance for Needy Families or TANF, that provides academic and social services to low-income parents attending state community colleges and technical centers.

“I found a place where I could come in every day and have somebody to talk to, and they support you, constantly asking if there is anything they can do to help,” said Bradford, who’s studying electrical automation. “I have 34 credit hours completed and a 4.0 GPA, and I totally think the program is what helped me get here.”

This August marks 20 years since the federal government turned management of its welfare programs over to states, giving local authorities the power to determine the use of money provided through block grants. The results have been mixed as states have reduced their welfare rolls, but have failed, in many cases, to lift people out of poverty. Arkansas, like many states, has had trouble in this regard, but it is finding success with a program that relies on higher education as an anchor.

Created in 2005, Career Pathways pulls together the services of state community colleges, workforce development agencies and social service providers to help low-income parents overcome hurdles that can disrupt their education. The program provides up to $1,500 a year toward tuition, books, child care or transportation costs for parents with income below 250 percent of the federal poverty line — about $46,000 a year for a family of four, regardless of whether they are on any form of public assistance.

While students are in the program, they are assigned a tutor who tracks their academic progress and a case manager who provides mentoring, career coaching and social service support, like arranging child care. Case managers assess students’ strengths and weaknesses to match them with careers that best suit their abilities. Students receive ongoing career services, such as resume writing and interviewing counseling, after leaving the program. This high-touch approach to workforce development has served more than 30,000 people in the last decade.

Even though he has a year until graduation, Bradford has already made use of pathway’s career services. He credits the program with helping him land a managerial position at Tyson Foods, where he’s been working for the past year.

“They prepared me with a résumé, cover letter and interview coaching,” he said. “I went from doing maintenance at Tyson to production supervisor. Once I complete school, I’m hoping I can stay with Tyson and do something specializing on the electronics side.”

What’s striking about Career Pathways is its results. A recent study of the program, funded by the Annie E. Casey, Ford and Winthrop Rockefeller foundations, found that nearly two thirds of participants enrolled in 2008 completed a degree or certificate by 2013, compared to 39 percent of community college students nationwide. Career Pathway students are six times more likely to have completed an associate degree than their peers at Arkansas community colleges, according to the study, dubbed College Counts.

“There is something about the case management — these students don’t get a lot of monetary assistance, but they’ll help them with a voucher for child care or a gas voucher to drive to and from school,” said Katherine Boswell, project manager for College Counts. “Having that advocate who help students negotiate this strange world of higher education is really working.”

Graduates of the program have also narrowed the wage gap between themselves and other Arkansas community college students from $6,432 back in 2006 to $1,584 by 2011, according to the study. Researchers found significant decreases in education and health services occupations, where the pay gap between the two populations went from roughly $6,000 to $600 in 2011. It is unclear from the data whether those jobs are all full time. Based on information Career Pathways supplies to the state, about 86 percent of program graduates are employed a year out and see 39 percent increase in their wages.

“It has been a great success story,” said Judy Mortrude, director of the Alliance for Quality Pathways program at the Center for Law and Social Policy, a policy think tank. “You see similar initiatives start and then stop. What sets Arkansas a part is the long-term dedication. They’ve really defined their roles and responsibilities in this comprehensive support service structure they’ve built around the education and training.”

Arkansas lawmakers have wholeheartedly embraced Career Pathways, expanding the program from 11 to 25 community colleges throughout the state over the years and encouraging the collaboration among state agencies. But the state has come under criticism for its shift of federal resources away from cash assistance toward other programs.

Advocates for the poor worry that the state has made it more difficult for families in desperate circumstances to access the money needed to meet their basic needs. For every 100 Arkansas families in poverty, barely seven received cash benefits from TANF in 2014, compared to about 40 families provided cash assistance a year before TANF was first enacted in 1996, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a left-leaning think tank. The cash benefits families do receive amount to $2 to $3 a day per person.

Arkansas’s TANF cases have also continued to decline as poverty in the state remained relatively high. The state counted 4,700 cases in 2014, despite having 119,800 families living below the poverty line, according to the center. Arkansas, like other states, has used a lot of the federal grant to fund early-childhood education and pregnancy prevention programs.

“States are spending TANF funds on child welfare, Pre-K or financial aid for higher education,” said Ifa Floyd, a policy analyst at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. “While these purposes are worthy, the question remains should they be funded with TANF dollars, which should primarily be for poor families.”

Career Pathways receives about 12 percent of Arkansas’s federal block grant, which amounts to $7.2 million a year. Bill Stovall, executive director of Arkansas Community Colleges, is soliciting state investment to expand eligibility. Stovall, former Arkansas House Speaker, says the program has made people less dependent on government assistance in a way that has long-term sustainability.

Boswell of College Counts said Career Pathways has significant national implications for shaping workforce development and the future of federal welfare.

“Short-term training doesn’t change lives. You might get a job flipping burgers, but six months down the road you’re probably going to be back on welfare,” she said. “But if you can get someone through at least a year of education and training, and some sort of certificate, that’s enough to become self-sustaining.”

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