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New Congressional Mandate Could Be Community College Bonus

About 30 states offer some type of free community college program. Eligibility among the various programs depends on everything and anything from the age of the participant to their household income. A new Congressional mandate could give community colleges another boost.

Before I look at the mandate, I have to say that most free community college programs have produced what I would call middling results. It’s a start, but these programs have not made the splash that states had hoped they would. Additionally, previously successful efforts like the Tennessee Reconnect program have stumbled recently. Michigan Reconnect has authorized more than 100,000 adults to enroll in classes, but only about 1 in 5 take that major step. Even fewer have gone on to graduate.

A new Congressional mandate could change that. Under the recently authorized Fiscal Responsibility Act, states will now need to track the outcomes of individuals and households who previously received cash benefits from the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF). The metrics will include the percentage of recipients who were able to find a job within 4-6 months of exiting the TANF program. Congress would also like to know how much former aid recipients are now making, and whether program recipients were still employed 9 months after leaving the program. For good measure, Congress would also like to know how many people who received assistance were 24 or younger and were in high school or earning their GED. And how many of those recipients graduated within a year of exiting the program.

(It seems as though Ronald Reagan’s “Welfare Queen” trope is still kicking in 2023. I guess Congress wants to be sure that the US taxpayer is getting good value for its welfare dollar.)

Community college can reduce welfare dependence

A preliminary report to Congress found that between 60% and 80% of former TANF recipients were working a year after leaving the program. That’s the positive side of this. The report also found that former TANF recipients who were working were living the dream in mostly low wage jobs. That meant the recipients were not earning enough to escape poverty but were earning too much to receive any TANF assistance. (In Michigan, “too much” is a total household income of $815 per month.)

So, how does this translate into an opportunity for a community college? By itself, TANF doesn’t do a very good job of either helping people find work or stay employed. But those are exactly the things a community college can do well. Considering the federal government’s “interest” in what happens to TANF recipients and the State’s willingness to pay for community college degrees, perhaps working with the State of Michigan to help TANF recipients prepare for higher wage jobs may be in order.

Incentives could include increasing the amount of cash assistance a person can receive while enrolled in certain high-wage, high-demand degree programs. Or perhaps extending the amount of time a person (or household) can receive cash assistance as long as they remain enrolled in college classes.

Community college can play an important role in moving people off welfare and into sustained, living wage employment. This is an opportunity to demonstrate some leadership in getting more Michigan residents into the workforce.

Photo Credit: Bradley Gordon , via Flickr