The Working Poor and College Access

New report chronicles the barriers experienced by an oft-ignored group and offers some solutions.
July 10, 2007

Despite the fact that the working poor who take college courses think of themselves as students first and employees second, their work place commitments, financial stressors and familial obligations pose particular challenges to full-time attendance and degree completion, as detailed in a new report from the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

The conundrum faced by the working poor in a nutshell: “Despite working long hours to provide for their families, their incomes still teeter on the brink of poverty. They understand that enrolling in college and earning a degree will help them improve their skills and increase their earnings potential. However, given their work and other responsibilities, it is difficult for them to enroll full time, thus making it harder for them to receive financial aid and complete the classes necessary for a degree,” according to the report released today, “College Access for the Working Poor: Overcoming Burdens to Succeed in Higher Education.”

Yet, the very fluidity of the term "working poor" was one of the more surprising findings of the report, said Alisa F. Cunningham, head of the research department at the Institute for Higher Education Policy. The working poor can periodically move into the "nonworking poor" category and vice versa as individuals make constant trade-offs about whether to take time off from work and attend college full time -- with full-time status being a major predictor when it comes to degree completion -- or step up the hours in the work place to pay for course work and the cost of living, Cunningham said.

"The working poor are emblematic of the broader complexity we're seeing in terms of enrollment in and success through higher education," added Jamie P. Merisotis, the institute's president. Family and work circumstances that "then get played out in things like part-time enrollment and financial aid programs ... represent something bigger in higher education, which is that American higher education is increasingly serving individuals who come from complex backgrounds and circumstances."

The report tracks the specific barriers to college access faced by the working poor -- defined by the authors as adults who work at least 25 hours per week and have family incomes at or below 200 percent of the poverty level -- and their children.

It also offers a number of recommendations to combat their college-going woes, including tax relief, targeted support for single parents, a revision of the federal financial aid need analysis, and additional outreach programs and institutional support, in the form, for instance, of evening or weekend hours for student services and extended hours for libraries and computer labs.

Among the statistics in the report:

  • Attendance and degree completion rates are higher for nonworking poor adults than for the working poor. Six percent of the working poor ages 24 to 64 were enrolled in "school at some level" in 2005, compared to 13 percent of the nonworking poor. Twenty-two percent of nonworking poor adults had earned an associate, bachelor’s or advanced degree, while just 18 percent of working poor adults could say the same. (The report notes, however, that these findings may be partially explained by the fact that students enrolled in college full time may have chosen not to work or to work only part time as they focus on their studies.)
  • Working poor adults are less likely to attend college full time, with 37 percent of working poor undergraduates attending exclusively full time compared to 48 percent of the nonworking poor (defined as those working fewer than 25 hours per week or for less than half of the weeks enrolled in a program).
  • Even after receiving aid, working poor adults must be able to put an average of about $4,000 per year toward their educations, while working poor youth pay on average about $4,300 toward college costs. "Like poor students in general," the report noted, "working poor students are left with significantly higher amounts of financial need after all aid has been awarded compared with their counterparts with greater economic resources."
  • Meanwhile, because many working poor adults attend college part time, their financial aid eligibility seems to be constrained. In 2003-04, 54 percent of working poor adults received a grant averaging around $3,000, while 67 percent of nonworking poor students (who have higher full-time attendance rates) received a grant averaging more than $3,500.
  • Completion rates for both working poor adults and their children are low. Nearly half of working poor adult students who began a degree or certificate program in 1995-96 had, at the six-year mark, left without obtaining a credential. Meanwhile, 28 percent of working poor youths who began a degree or certificate program in 1995-96 had received a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 44 percent for higher-income dependent students and 33 percent of youths living below the poverty level. Though working dependent students are likelier than their peers to receive an associate degree, “they were also more likely to leave school without attaining any degree or certificate.”

The report indicates, however, that while the barriers are significant, there are also “many examples of programs and practices -- such as improved counseling, child-care services and flexible schedules -- that help the working poor overcome these obstacles.” Among the report’s recommendations to improve matters:

  • Expand federal higher education tax credits by including room, board and book expenses for students enrolled at least half-time and make the Hope and Lifetime Learning credits refundable: That is, an individual eligible for a credit above the amount of his tax liability would receive a refund for the balance. This strategy, said the Institute's Merisotis, would likely prove to be particularly helpful for working poor adult students.
  • Increase childcare allowances in the financial need analysis, and count postsecondary education toward the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families program, an outgrowth of the Welfare Reform Law of 1996. According to the report, a welfare recipient must work, do community service or take vocational education classes for at least 20 hours a week to be eligible for assistance -- but college courses in a postsecondary degree program that's not focused on vocational training do not count toward that 20-hour total.
  • Offer institutional support in the form of evening or weekend hours for student services (such as advising and financial aid counseling), a range of class times for core academic courses and extended library and computer lab hours.
  • Change the federal need analysis to allow for higher student earnings without a reduction in aid and increase the income threshold that qualifies for a “zero” in the “expected family contribution” box.
  • Conduct more outreach and offer more mentoring and support programs for first-generation college students. In 2003-4, 37 percent of dependent working poor students were first-generation college students, while 19 percent of students from higher-income families were first-generation.


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