Welfare Reform and College Enrollment Among Single Mothers
Critics of 1996 welfare reform argue that federal and state governments deny or limit welfare recipients’ access to postsecondary education. The Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act of 1996 sets the trend by limiting welfare recipients’ access to higher education in many important ways. The law’s work requirements present a serious barrier to education for welfare recipients whose time is already limited by the responsibilities of single motherhood. A close examination of the literature suggests, however, that the estimated effect of PRWORA on college enrollment may not be as straightforward as expected due to state government flexibility and caseload reduction credits that might have enabled welfare recipients to enroll in college. Furthermore, it is not clear how mandatory employment affects welfare recipients ‘decisions to enroll in college and whether the effects lasted throughout the postreform period until recently. The purpose of this study is to examine PRWORA’s effects on welfare recipients’ college enrollment while accounting for enrollment status (full-time vs. part-time), type of colleges (2-year vs. 4-year college), and stages of welfare reform (before and after 2002).
Applying a difference-in-difference-in-difference method to the October Supplements of the Current Population Survey for the years 1990–2008, this study examines whether PRWORA negatively affects the college enrollment of targeted single mothers. The final sample for this study includes 283,803 women between ages 21 and 49 who reported that they have a high school or an equivalent diploma but lack a postsecondary degree in the 1990–2008 data.The analysis, together with an examination of state and year fixed effects, enables this study to isolate the effects of PRWORA from the effects of other economic and policy factors.
Findings suggest that PRWORA is associated with a statistically significant decrease in the total college enrollment among single mothers who lack postsecondary degrees. This overarching statement, however, masks important but not-well-understood variations in PRWORA’s relationship with single mothers’ college enrollment; because the estimates suggest that changes in college enrollment differ by enrollment status, college type, and PRWORA’s implementation stage. In particular, the results suggest that PRWORA is associated with statistically significant reductions in single mothers’ full-time, 2-year college enrollment during the first reform period. The policy is also associated with statistically significant declines in single mothers’ full-time, 4-year college enrollment throughout both reform periods. However, the results indicate that PRWORA is not statistically significantly associated with single mothers’ part-time enrollment in 2- or 4-year colleges during the first postreform period.
Given the importance of postsecondary education for one of the least educated groups in the country, this study’s findings shed important light on the reauthorization of PRWORA. They are especially relevant in regard to the requirement of weekly work hours. In reauthorization, certain of PRWORA’s education-related features should be revisited to bring welfare policy into line with the national agenda to offer all populations the opportunity to pursue postsecondary degrees. Increasing the stringency of work requirements is not likely to encourage single mothers’ college enrollment, especially full-time enrollment.