Executive Summary

For millions of Americans, higher education has served as a gateway to the middleclass. Yet, despite the economic pay-offs associated with obtaining a college degree, the “work first” emphasis of welfare reform has led to the severe restriction of post-secondary educational opportunities for welfare participants. Faced with the pressure of balancing strict work requirements, increased bureaucratic hurdles, parenting responsibilities, and the demands of college coursework, thousands of students on welfare have abandoned their pursuit of higher education since the enactment of welfare reform. This study takes a look at some of those who refused to let go of their dream. In collaboration with LIFETIME, an Oakland-based nonprofit organization dedicated to meeting the needs of welfare participants pursuing higher education, the Institute for Women’s Policy Research (IWPR) gained access to a sample of current and former student-parents, each of whom sought post-secondary education while receiving welfare in California. IWPR used a mixed-mode data collection strategy, including surveys and focus groups with current and former student-parents and personal interviews with college administrators to explore the challenges and rewards of the higher education experiences of low-income mothers. This report details the inspiration, struggles, and perseverance of those pursuing a college degree while receiving welfare in California and the benefits that education brings them and their children.