WASHINGTON – The choice for Edna Jean Jackson,53,came down to new tires for her car or classes at the Community College of Rhode Island.
Her life was always about making sacrifices; she weighed her success that way,she said.
“I was going to give it up,” Jackson said. “But I thought,if I can get an education,I can beat this. That was my motivation.”
She chose to take classes and drive on two bald,front tires. That was in January,and she's still waiting for enough money to buy new ones.
Brenda Dann-Messier,one of Jackson's mentors and president of Dorcas Place Adult and Family Learning Center,said that most working poor adult students like Jackson are highly motivated,even when getting a college education is difficult.
At a briefing Tuesday,Jackson joined members of the Institute for Higher Education Policy,USA Funds and the Dorcas Place Adult and Family Learning Center to speak about the challenges that working poor adults face and why they should be addressed.
“There are 20 million working poor people in the U.S. who lack the time and money to get a degree,” said Jamie P. Merisotis,founding president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy.
The speakers mentioned time,money,child care commitments and lack of support as major obstacles for working poor students.
These students work full time or part time,yet earn less than twice what is considered a poverty wage. A family of three that earns $17,170 or less is considered to be at the poverty level.
Poor families make up 14 percent of U.S. population. Nearly two-thirds of the working poor have attained a high school diploma or less,and more than half have children.
Many working poor students are eligible for grants,scholarships and loans based on financial need. But after all that financial help,the average working poor student still pays $4,000.
“It's overwhelming to want an education but can't afford it,” Jackson said.
Jackson,one of 13 children,grew up in the projects of Providence,R.I. She is the single mother of a daughter and has three grandchildren.
“Growing up,education wasn't an issue,” she said. “Work and taking care of family was the only thing we thought about.”
A friend recommended Dorcas Place Adult and Family Learning Center,and Jackson enrolled in the college preparatory program. She took classes during the day and worked a variety of jobs at night.
Jackson is a part-time student at the Community College for Rhode Island,where she expects to graduate in 2009 with an associate's degree in human services. She wants to assist substance abuse and mental health patients.
Dann-Messier emphasized the importance of support services,such as career planning and advising,tutors,exposure to college campuses,child care and support during a student's transition to a career or another institution.
Many Dorcas Center students go on to community colleges. Norma Kent,spokeswoman for the American Association of Community Colleges,said the association doesn't focus specifically on adult working poor students,but community colleges address their needs and those of other students with flexible schedules and weekend and online courses.
“Community colleges are made up mostly of commuters and part-time students who are also working,” Kent said. “So it's natural” that community colleges would attract students without a lot of money.
Courtney McSwain,research analyst at the Institute for Higher Education Policy,said the briefing was meant to get policy makers thinking about working poor students as a specific group.
“These people aren't targeted specifically,” McSwain said. “Our goal is really to help policy makers think of new ideas to target this group … who are worthy of specific focus.”
One way this group should be looked at differently is with outreach,Dann-Messier said.
“Many do not see college as a viable option,” she said. “We need to raise public awareness in the communities the working poor live and work in.”
All speakers said the federal government,state governments and institutions should address the issue. They suggested proposals such as tax breaks for working poor students and taking child care costs into consideration in determining financial need.
No bills are pending before Congress,and McSwain said the briefing was not tied to any particular legislation. But she did say the College Cost Reduction and Access Act of 2007 that President Bush signed Sept. 27,which increases federal funding of Pell Grants,would help.
“We tried to get a briefing at a time when people would be listening,” McSwain said. “We're hopeful that this information will reach policy makers.”