Welfare Reform in the States: Where is Higher Education?
Background on Welfare Reform

The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 changed the way in which welfare recipients receive benefits. The act:

  • Eliminates Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) and the Job Opportunities and Basic Skills program (JOBS), replacing them with the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Block Grant. Policy Insights is a companion publication for WICHE's fact book, Policy Indicators for Higher Education: WICHE States. Policy Insights examines current issues in higher education from the perspective of policymakers at the state level and on the campus.

  • Eliminates all entitlements to existing programs.

  • Requires TANF recipients to work and imposed a five-year lifetime cap on receiving TANF support. States that do not meet work participation targets face heavy fiscal penalties. A maximum of 12 months of vocational training is considered a work related activity.
  • The purpose of the reform was to eliminate cash assistance supports to the poor and impose work requirements. Key provisions likely to affect higher education enrollments include:

  • Required work participation of recipients. One-half of all single-parent welfare families must work by fiscal year 2002; of two-parent families, 90 percent must work by fiscal 1999.

  • Minimum work hours per week. Of those required to work, single parent families must work 20 hours per week in fiscal 1997 and 1998, and 30 hours in fiscal 2000 and thereafter. Two-parent families must work 35 hours per week in fiscal 2000 and thereafter.

  • Acceptable work activities. These include private/public employment, on-the-job training, community service programs, vocational education training, and up to six weeks of job search.
  • Of the welfare recipients who are required to work, no more than 20 percent may be enrolled in adult/vocational education (this includes teen parents attending secondary school). Further, unmarried teens must attend school, achieve a high school diploma or GED, or be in an approved alternative education program. Out-of-school youth and adults may participate in limited-duration vocational programs, if available through non-TANF resources. In many cases, states have asserted that English literacy, basic education, and citizenship preparation do not qualify as work participation activities.

    The act has profound implications for states with high minority participation in TANF. In a report prepared by The Institute for Higher Education Policy and the Education Resources Institute, welfare participation was identified as one of three important factors which hinder access to and success in postsecondary education.1 Welfare recipients are predominantly female, single, and minority. As many as 41 percent do not have a high school diploma; of those that attend college, most enroll predominantly at two-year public institutions, and 86 percent of them are independent students. Also, 96 percent of welfare students have a zero Expected Family Contribution (EFC), compared to 21 percent of nonwelfare students. The critical nature of the zero EFC is that federal student financial aid is considered by many states as income when determining eligibility for welfare and can, therefore, decrease TANF benefits.


    National organizations such as The One Dupont Welfare Reform Coalition, the American Association of Community Colleges, and the National Association of State Universities and Land-Grant Colleges are advocating revisions to the act. Their recommendations include:

       Extend educational opportunities to four years of postsecondary education

       Create incentives for campuses to provide transitional education and training for welfare recipients attending two- and four-year institutions

       Extend the vocational education limitation as a requirement for work to not less than two years

       Remove teen parents without a high school diploma from the vocational education cap

       Permit college work/study and other campus based work-related programs to satisfy employment and training requirements of TANF 1 The Education Resources Institute and The Institute for Higher Education Policy. December 1997. Missed Opportunities - A New Look at Disadvantaged College Aspirants. Washington, DC.

    Introduction Initial Challenges Status of the Western States Policy Implications