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Video: Supporting Student Parents in Community College CalWORKs Programs

Stephanie Barton November 4, 2020
photo - Toddler and Mother on Lap Top

In any given year, 10%–15% of adults in CalWORKs—the state’s primary cash assistance and Welfare-to-Work program—enroll at a community college; single mothers make up about two-thirds of these adults seeking higher education and training. In 2018–19, about 20,000 Californians enrolled in CalWORKs college programs. Given the economic downturn, that number is projected to double in 2021–21 as adults turn to community colleges to improve skills when jobs are scarce.

On October 27, PPIC researcher Bonnie Brooks presented key findings from a new report investigating how programs at California community colleges help support the economic mobility of CalWORKs student parents. Brooks discussed takeaways and implications of the report with PPIC researcher Shannon McConville.

CalWORKs students perform better during terms in which they are enrolled with CalWORKs supports compared with terms they are not: students complete courses, enroll full-time, and persist to the next term. While college completion and transfer rates are relatively low among these students, those who pursue career education are slightly more likely to complete a credential or degree. About a third of CalWORKs students choose career education—including fields such as business and early education; 45% major in other fields such as humanities.

CalWORKs community college programs are designed to support the needs of the local student population. Among targeted services, students most often opted for transportation assistance, while they chose housing assistance less often. Work-study was a popular core program, but three-quarters of colleges had to deny students access due to capacity constraints.

“There’s more work that needs to be done to understand how specific student supports are related to success,” Brooks said.  “We also want to explore policy levers that will help CalWORKs students complete middle and long-term goals.” These policy levers include the California Guided Pathways project that outlines necessary steps for students to complete college and financial aid that covers the total cost of college.

Financial aid, in particular, is a strong predictor of student success. “While the community colleges are very low in fees and tuition relative to other four-year universities, the total cost of attending is quite high in many places in California because of the cost of living,” Shannon McConville said. Students who receive Pell Grants, the most common form of federal financial aid for CalWORKs students, are far more likely to persist to the next term.

McConville also stressed the need to strengthen career pathways, such as connecting coursework to employment and increasing the availability of work-study: “Work-study can provide a very targeted way in which students, and CalWORKs students in particular, can gain work experience.”

Equity continues to be a critical issue moving forward, as McConville emphasized that African American and Latino adults are overrepresented in CalWORKs but underrepresented in the state’s higher education. Therefore, equity should factor into recovery plans as policymakers respond to the economic crisis “so that all Californians can have access to the support they need to complete their post-secondary training.”

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