TANF program provides opportunity, support for college degree
By George Hohmann
For the W.Va. Press Association
LOGAN, W.Va. — Melissa Marcum is determined to get off welfare, build a self-sustaining life for herself, and provide for her kids.
Marcum is a recipient of federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, or TANF, aid. She is one of 7,626 TANF cases in the state.
Last fall Marcum and 26 other TANF recipients became part of an experiment. They enrolled in a pilot program at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College that has been so successful it be expanded state-wide this fall. The pilot program selects TANF recipients who are eager to better their lives and provides them with the support they need to obtain a college degree. The ultimate goal is to help recipients become self-sustaining citizens.
“I was seeing that I was 34 and needed to go back to school, get an education,” Marcum said. She had signed up for TANF benefits when “they told me about this (pilot program) and said they would help any way they could to get me in college and that way I could get a degree. This is my first year, ever, going to college.”
Like all TANF recipients, Marcum has a deadline. Sixty months — five years — is the lifetime maximum a recipient can receive benefits.
Marcum is a single mom, like most TANF recipients. She has a 16-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son.
“My thing now is, I have to do this,” she said. “I’m not just doing it for my kids. I’m mainly doing it for myself. I can’t depend on anybody else. It gets tough, juggling everything, but I really like it. It gives me a little bit of purpose, other than just being a mom.”
Marcum has more challenges than juggling a busy schedule: She was out of school for 17 years and is older than most Southern students. Although some courses are offered online, she goes to Southern’s Logan campus — four miles from her home — on Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Fridays because “I want to be lectured. I can’t learn if I have to teach myself.” Also, math has “all changed” and “it’s hard for me to catch on.”
Marcum said her biggest challenge is her home life. “Everything with me and my kids is good — it’s other home issues, personal issues,” she said. “But I’m still not quitting. I’ve not had a place to stay sometimes and I still didn’t miss class.”
In June Marcum plans to take the American College Testing, or ACT, standardized test for college admissions with her daughter. Marcum’s goal is to earn a two-year degree and become a surgical technologist — a health professional who assists in the operating room.
Irene Adkins, 36, is also enrolled in the pilot program. She wants to earn a two-year degree in criminal justice and become a probation officer.
Like Marcum, Adkins is a single mom with a 16-year-old and a 13-year-old. “I also take care of a 7-year-old,” she said. Her biggest challenge is trying to balance kids and school. This semester Adkins is taking four classes online and one class on campus.
“I have straight A’s,” she said.
Hattie Evans is essential in making the pilot program work. She is the student services specialist, which means she helps students like Marcum and Adkins by combining Southern’s assets with funds and programs of the state Department of Health and Human Resources, or DHHR.
“I hold them by the hand from registration to modification of schedules to completion of scholarships to going online and applying for the ACT,” Evans said. “I help them fax their time sheets to get reimbursed. I help them fax ACT admission tickets to get reimbursed for the $39.50 fee. I help them transfer from the two-year into the four-year program smoothly with the application process, getting their official transcripts, their financial aid — everything.”
When Marcum needed a laptop and printer for school, Evans found a way to provide them. Adkins said the $10 a day she and other pilot program recipients receive for transportation has been a big help to her.
If childcare is an issue, Evans works with Link Child Care Resource and Referral, a program funded by DHHR, to find a solution.
Evans provided a list of her duties, which she summed up this way: “There’s not much of nothing I don’t do.”
Adkins put it this way: “She makes sure you don’t fail.”
Gov. Earl Ray Tomblin meets monthly with many state agency heads, urging them to collaborate on workforce issues the way the Community and Technical College System and the DHHR are working together on the TANF pilot program.
Of the 27 TANF recipients enrolled in the pilot program last fall, two are no longer in the program, two went to work and 23 completed the fall semester. Of the 23 who completed the fall semester, five earned a 4.0 grade-point average. Only one received failing grades.
The pilot program expanded this semester to 35 TANF recipients taking classes at Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College. West Virginia annually receives $110 million in federal money for TANF and spends another $34.5 million in state funds.
Sarah Tucker, chancellor of the West Virginia Community and Technical College System, said, “The students are doing really well at Southern. They are in programs that will lead to a job. They are persisting, getting good grades.”
As a result of the program’s success, the DHHR and the Community and Technical College System have agreed to expand it this fall to all nine community colleges around the state.
“I think this is a heckuva story, to be able to talk about taking people who are TANF recipients and struggling and getting them into meaningful job opportunities,” Tucker said.
“The reason I got into working with community colleges is because I believe community colleges can change the trajectory of somebody’s life and it can change the trajectory of the vast majority of West Virginians’ lives who are living in poverty right now. That is why I do this job.”
The TANF pilot program and a similar program that helps dislocated workers “are an exact reflection of that belief,” Tucker said. “It’s exactly what community colleges ought to be doing and are doing.”
DHHR Secretary Karen Bowling said her agency has determined how many student service specialists will be needed at each community and technical college.
“We’ll be adding a second specialist at Southern because we know there are a significant number of TANF recipients and we want to make sure we continue to do the case management that ensures we’re giving the recipients the individualized attention they need,” she said. “Each community college will receive either one or two specialists for next year.
“Our goal is to have this in place by July 1,” she said. “We’re going to pick the right recipients to make sure they have what they need — the skill sets, the motivation — and see that they’ve already made some decisions about the types of programs they’re interested in.”
Bowling said DHHR staff will go to the community colleges “to learn about all of the programs so they can go back and educate our TANF recipients.”
Even if a TANF recipient doesn’t participate in the new program, “we believe we can still steer them toward a community college to get some education and training.”
Southern Community and Technical College has offered to help the other community colleges set up financial aid workshops and boot camps for TANF recipients who are going back to school after a long break.
Bowling said she came up with the pilot program idea last year and talked with community college presidents and First Lady Joanne Jaeger Tomblin, who was president of Southern West Virginia Community and Technical College from 1999 to June 30, 2015.
Mrs. Tomblin “was the first person to come to me and say she would really like Southern to be part of a pilot program for this initiative because there was a recognition in southern West Virginia that there was a real need to try to create a different type of workforce that could be self-sustaining,” Bowling said.
“So the First Lady and I discussed the concept of how do we put a community college together with our DHHR offices and help them learn, together, about what kind of educational opportunities there are and what our particular TANF recipients need so they can be successful in the community and technical college program.”
Creation of the student services specialist position was critical, Bowling said.
Hattie Evans seems the perfect person to fill that job at Southern.
She went through a divorce after 23 1/2 years of marriage. “I thought, “To sustain myself and have some retirement I’ve got to get a job and to do that I’ve got to go back to school.’ So I did.
“I got an associate degree. I couldn’t get a job and I said, ‘I have no other choice — I have to go back and get a bachelor’s degree.”
After earning a bachelor’s in human services and counseling in 2010, Evans decided to pursue a master’s degree in counseling and human development. “I wouldn’t make a lot more money in counseling but I knew it would open a more doors, more opportunities, for me,” she said.
Since receiving her master’s in December 2012, Evans has worked temporary jobs at Southern in student support services, as a student program advisor, as a General Educational Development, or GED, instructor, and as an adjunct instructor. She also did some case management work for the state Division of Rehabilitation Services and was an instructor of TANF recipients.
When she started working last fall in the TANF pilot program, “I had previously worked with these students. I knew their background, the barriers they faced,” she said. “I had barriers myself to overcome.”
“I really do enjoy this work,” Evans said. “I have the compassion to work with these students and to see them succeed. I love my job and I love working with them. I do everything in my power to keep them focused.
“I have students who come sometimes and cry. And I say, ‘Hey, if you get out there and get that minimum-wage job, it’s just a Band-Aid on a wound. If you have a degree you’re more apt to be hired and stay on.”
Bowling said, “We’ve been so successful in this program it’s unbelievable. These individuals are motivated. They want to become self-sufficient. Our job is to figure out how to make that happen.”