The Other Side of CalWORKs: Issues Colleges Need to Consider

Ad Hoc Welfare Reform Committee

The growing attention to welfare reform and the CalWORKs program is revealing new issues for community colleges. These programs are intended to provide job-specific education and the support services that will enable welfare recipients to develop the initial skills to get a job. Once employed, individuals will return to college for the more advanced education that will permit them to pursue a better life-style. In order to make this program successful, community colleges must address new issues that are rarely, or at best peripherally, mentioned in the mandates issued by the state.

Primary among these new issues is shared governance. Collegial consultation with the academic senate as well as participation by staff and students is necessary if the challenges of welfare reform are to be overcome. The success of CalWORKs depends on the creation of a learning experience that invites students back, which in turn depends on instructional and student service faculty. Returning students will also depend on the expertise of classified staff, many of whom already work with welfare recipients in offices like Financial Aid. A CalWORKs team comprising representatives from all constituency groups, including students, has a much better chance of designing and implementing a program that will meet its objectives than does any group without varied perspectives.

Another issue is program evaluation. Colleges have traditionally been evaluated on their ability to graduate or transfer students or to place them in jobs for which they are qualified. But CalWORKs will assess the effectiveness of colleges by the success of students after they enter the workforce (e.g., students' ability to keep the jobs in which they are placed). This may require colleges to provide students with social skills in addition to subject matter instruction. This has historically been the job of postgraduate programs, not community colleges. Now, community colleges may have to expand their offerings.

To accomplish this new goal, community colleges may need to establish partnerships with community based organizations to which students can turn for help with clothing, transportation, child care, and other personal matters. Some communities may have organizations in place that are prepared to offer those services, but others will need to help establish them. Another possibility is to identify funding to contract for those services, but current budget guidelines preclude that.

In fact, current budget guidelines are better suited for start-up activities than for ongoing operational purposes. Community colleges need line items for case management and support services such as those discussed above, particularly for the large numbers of students with learning disabilities who are expected to become part of the CalWORKs population. Without the ability to fund those components of the program, our chances of effectively preparing students for the workplace will be severely reduced.

Although welfare reform legislation might fall short of our preferences, we have to make the best of it for the sake of our students. If we address the issues that have not been adequately discussed up to this point, we stand a chance of turning draconian legislation into programs that can positively affect students' lives.