College students on welfare won’t have to attend supervised study halls to fulfill weekly work requirements and can pursue baccalaureate, advanced degrees, or distance education under new, soon-to-be-released federal regulations for the Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) Program . (The regulations, obtained by Inside Higher Ed, were briefly available to the public last week before the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services rescinded them because of clerical errors. A spokesman said the content will remain consistent, and a new version will likely be available on the Federal Register  within a week).
The final rule updates – and in many respects, relaxes -- an interim final rule  released in June 2006 after Congress tightened the welfare program as part of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 . Some of the changes could reflect a return to pre-2006 policies in some states. However, advocates stress that real limitations, including onerous reporting requirements established in the 2006 regulations, remain unchanged and that problems persist.
“They’re a slight loosening of the clamping down that happened 18 months ago,” Liz Schott, a senior fellow at the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities , a Washington think tank focused on policies and programs benefiting low- and moderate-income individuals, said of the new regulations.
“These are significant positive changes,” added Amy-Ellen Duke, a senior policy analyst at the Washington-based Center for Law and Social Policy , which also focuses on issues affecting low-income individuals. “But it’s hard to see how this is going to play out necessarily in the long run.”
Policy analysts point to several aspects of the revised final rule, which would go into effect October 1, as having implications for higher education. Under the TANF program, welfare recipients can receive vocational educational training full-time at a postsecondary institution for up to one year (while counting toward a state’s proportion of welfare recipients working – which is tied to a state's federal funding). The interim regulations released in 2006, however, restricted basic skills and English as a Second Language education as something that should be of "limited duration" in the course of a vocational training program, and said that hours spent on homework would only count toward the total number of hours that welfare recipients are required to "work" per week if those students were supervised while studying. Among the changes in the final rule:
- Perhaps most significantly, the new regulations allow states to count up to one hour of unsupervised homework time for every hour of class time toward students' total working hours, plus supervised homework time. ("Total homework time," however, "cannot exceed the hours required or advised by a particular educational program.") “The homework rule imposed an incredibly taxing administrative burden on states,” Duke said of the restrictions in place since 2006. And students too, who were denied flexibility under the 2006 rule: “Think about a woman who has children and is trying to juggle work, study and her family, needing to find that time for supervised homework."
- The new regulations expand the definition of “vocational educational training” put forward in 2006 to include participation in baccalaureate or advanced degree programs (while cautioning that states can only count one year of vocational educational training per person toward the work participation rate).
- The government notes a number of comments from individuals who objected to the earlier determination that remedial or English as a Second Language education would count as vocational educational training only if it were of “limited duration.” “These commenters noted that participation in vocational educational training is, by definition, of limited duration – 12 months in a lifetime. They also noted that some programs combine basic skills education and vocational training for the entire duration of the program….As a result of these comments, we have reconsidered our stance….[B]asic skills education may count as vocational educational training as long as it is a necessary or regular part of vocational education training.” (Vocational training must remain "the primary focus" of a student's program.)
- The new regulations clarify that distance learning can count toward work participation rates, “to the extent that such programs otherwise meet the work activity definitions and include supervision.”
But the tight monitoring requirements instilled in 2006 – which in Kentucky, for instance, mean that TANF recipients have to ask instructors to sign off on every hour of attendance after every class – might impede any progress in terms of increasing flexibility for students, some say. “We feel like we are losing some of our TANF students,” said Shauna King-Simms, director of College and Career Transitions for the Kentucky Community and Technical College System. “They don’t want to be singled out, identified, discriminated against as a welfare recipient. In many cases, they’re not reporting or they’re passing up the opportunity, the supports that TANF can provide them as a student to avoid that level of accountability and discrimination." The number of TANF recipients in the 16-college system has fallen from 2,500 at the program’s height to around 1,700 to 2,000, with the declines “not totally unrelated to” the Deficit Reduction Act, or DRA, and "the crackdown on attendance verifications," King-Simms said.
“From a Kentucky perspective, from what I’ve seen of this revision, it does not at all get us back to square one, where we were prior to the DRA revisions,” King-Simms said of the new final rule. For instance, since 2006, various Kentucky colleges have hosted study halls in libraries, computer labs and learning resource centers so TANF students could count supervised homework hours toward work requirements. Prior to 2006, Kentucky counted two hours of unsupervised homework per hour of class.
“The DRA totally eliminated that option and now we're halfway back to where we began.”