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Report · October 2020

Supporting Student Parents in Community College CalWORKs Programs

Shannon McConville, Sarah Bohn, and Bonnie Brooks

This research was supported with funding from the ECMC Foundation, the James Irvine Foundation, and the Sutton Family Fund.


Many Californians face difficulties connecting to good jobs because of limited education. This is especially true for poor families who receive cash assistance from the state’s CalWORKs (California Work Opportunity and Responsibility to Kids) program. Few CalWORKs parents have more than a high school degree, and many struggle to balance family and work responsibilities. Quality jobs provide family-sustaining incomes and opportunities for growth that can buffer families from the shocks of recessions, like the current pandemic-induced downturn.

California’s community colleges provide education and vocational training that can fulfill CalWORKs work requirements, and every community college offers targeted programs for students receiving CalWORKs benefits. These programs provide additional services and supports to address the specific challenges students may face both inside and outside the classroom as low-income, predominantly single parents.

This report examines the role California’s community colleges play in building skills and credentials to support the economic mobility of CalWORKs parents. We examine the trajectories of more than 43,000 students who received CalWORKs cash assistance and services from a college CalWORKs program between the school years 2012-13 and 2018-19. We also surveyed CalWORKs program directors at community colleges to learn more about the programs and services they provide to students. We find:

  • On average, CalWORKs students enroll for six terms at a community college and receive support services through college CalWORKs programs for four terms. During this time, CalWORKs students complete a substantial number of credits-earning nearly 40 units on average.
  • CalWORKs students have low completion rates. Less than one in four CalWORKs students complete a credential, and far fewer (12%) transfer to a four-year college within three years of entering a college CalWORKs program.
  • About one-third of CalWORKs students pursue career education pathways based on their course-taking. Most of these students enroll in business (33%) and family and consumer sciences (31%) (predominantly early childhood education). Far fewer students enroll in health (15%) or public and protective services (14%) programs-the two career education fields that provide the highest economic returns.
  • College CalWORKs programs offer a wide range of services. While all programs offer a core set of supports like counseling and case management, colleges vary in offering services like transportation and food assistance, child care, tutoring, and laptop loan programs.
  • CalWORKs students do better when they are enrolled in college CalWORKs programs compared to when they are not. Specifically, CalWORKs students are more likely to enroll full-time, successfully complete their coursework, and persist to the next term-all important factors related to college completion-when they are receiving additional services through a college CalWORKs program.

Understanding how community colleges can respond to the current recession and prepare CalWORKs students for better jobs when the economy recovers is crucial information. At the same time, these lessons may have applications for the broader student body at community colleges, many of whom struggle to make efficient progress toward a credential, and who may face mounting challenges amid the economic realities in California.


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