2001 - 2002

Project Director: Fern Marx, M.H.S.M.

This project was an evaluation of a program that looked at the ways in which low income women benefit or suffer from various approaches to community and leadership development.

Higher Education for Lower-Income Women: A Real Route Out of Poverty

  • Read the final reportGrassroots to Graduation: Low-Income Women Accessing Higher Education
  • Read the key findingsGrassroots to Graduation: Low-Income Women Accessing Higher Education

Student Researchers: Kristin Ruff, NSF AIRE Intern, Erin Rand-Giovannetti, Lauren Blake, Morgan Wells, Jessica Gannon

WICD membersThe Wellesley Centers for Women conducted a comprehensive evaluation of Women in Community Development (WICD), a unique Boston-based collaborative providing access for low-income women to higher education. With funding provided by the Nellie Mae foundation, Senior Research Scientist Fern Marx consulted with WICD staff, program participants, and an evaluation advisory group in order to help the program better understand its work and establish in-house monitoring, accountability and evaluation activities to guide future program development.

Begun in 1997, WICD is a joint venture of Project Hope, the Women's Institute for Housing and Economic Development, and the College of Public and Community Service (CPCS) at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. The goals of the program are to provide access for low-income women to a four year college degree in human services or community development and to enrich these fields with the knowledge and experience of low-income women. Program services include peer support, financial assistance, academic guidance and support, leadership training, referral to jobs and professional development opportunities. This fact sheet provides additional information about WICD.

One of the goals of the evaluation is to provide information to others in the field on the WICD approach to facilitating low-income women's successful participation in higher education. In order to more fully understand current issues in the provision of post-secondary educational opportunities for low-income women, the study also conducted interviews with 20 similar college access and support programs from across the country. We found that these programs fell into three categories: college preparatory programs, Associate Degree programs, and Bachelor Degree programs. Fact sheets on one program from each category provide additional information on these programs.

WICD Board

At present in the United States, single minority women and women with low education occupy the highest level of poverty (Bolt 2000). Welfare reform efforts in the 1990s emphasized short-term job training instead of longer term post-secondary education (Karier 2000). Numerous studies have documented that higher education provides financial stability and increased job opportunities, ending cyclical dependence on welfare. According to a 1998 study conducted by Eastern Washington University and the Washington State Employment Security Department, the number of years of college completed is directly related economic self-sufficiency. More recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2000) underscores these findings.

Median weekly earnings of full-time female workers Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000

Program Recommendations
Accommodating low-income adult learners requires that institutions develop specific services and resources for this population as well as addressing state welfare policy issues, which may be limiting the numbers of women able to complete their educational goals. In order to learn what types of services, resources and policy issues need to be addressed, a series of interviews were conducted with WICD stakeholders (partners, staff, funders and board members) as well as current WICD participants and graduates. Some initial findings are reviewed below.

Future Program Direction

  • Increase collaboration, outreach and advocacy with community organizations and government agencies to enhance access to childcare, housing, financial assistance.
  • Increase collaboration with community agencies and educational institutions to advocate more effectively for low-income women's access to higher education through welfare reform.
  • Develop connections with community colleges, college prep and GED programs to expand the number of women who have access to higher education and ensure that they have the necessary academic skills to succeed in higher education. This may include a redefinition of who the program serves.
  • A mentor program should be developed which utilizes peer mentoring as well as mentoring by professional women.
  • Expand referral network in the public and private sector to increase employment opportunities for participants and graduates.
  • Formalize support for program graduates and refine the system for job placement and post-baccalaureate education.
  • WICD needs to explore alternative funding sources, tailor their approach to each organization, provide a clearer description of the program to potential funders, and develop a paid membership base.
  • Increasing the number of program participants should also have a positive effect on the ability of WICD to access new and more stable sources of support.
  • Increase the visibility of WICD through participants and graduates acting as presenters at public hearings and through membership on boards and commissions in the public and private sectors.
  • WICD's unique approach to facilitating access to higher education for low-income women can serve as an economic development model for other institutions and organizations. WICD should develop an operations manual to guide future program development.

Advocacy and Reform Issues

Quality of education in Massachusetts

  • Women entering the program are ill prepared for higher education due to inadequate elementary and secondary education.
  • Reliance on MCAS scores as eligibility requirements discourages and limits access to higher education for low-income women.
  • Expanding advocacy and support for low-income students within universities, similar to the ARMS center at CPCS, would assist students in completing their degree.

University admission requirements

  • Traditional standards of admissions, emphasizing standardized test scores and educational background, do not accommodate different learning styles and abilities.
  • Increased SAT admission requirements will limit access to higher education for low-income women. University recruitment based on skills other than SAT scores would provide access to higher education for those coming from non-traditional educational backgrounds.

Financial assistance for education

  • More state aid and scholarships are needed to counter rising educational expenses.
  • Increase the accessibility of financial aid for low-income women by eliminating criminal record checks from applications and promoting loan forgiveness.
  • Access to emergency funds to meet unexpected circumstances would promote the retention of many low-income students.
  • Provisions for childcare and transportation for those no longer receiving state support would eliminate these barriers for low-income women.
  • Given the increasing housing costs, additional advocacy for affordable housing for lower income women is needed.

Welfare Reform Issues

  • Long term education rather than short term job training or work requirements are needed for low-income women to become economically self-sufficient. The work-first policy under Temporary Assistance of Needy Families (TANF) has worked against quality education.
  • Work requirements for Section 8 vouchers and shelters work against residents being able to participate in higher education.
  • Advocating to replace the current poverty guidelines with the Family Self-Sufficiency Standard will reflect real living costs in Massachusetts.

Successful WICD participantEmployer support

  • Employers providing flexible working hours and financial assistance for educational expenses would facilitate access to higher education, promote responsibility in the public and private sector, and encourage low income women to increase their skills.


Preliminary findings from the evaluation study suggest that with one exception, all the programs reviewed in the study including WICD face restrictive state policies which at best provide TANF support for a maximum of two-years of higher education. Thus programs either find themselves needing to provide direct financial support or access to student loans in order to permit low-income women to participate. Program participants who remain on TANF must meet both the work and education requirements. In light of these pressures, most programs report that the number of participants on welfare has declined markedly over recent years, although attendance of low-income women has increased or remained stable. The challenge for the coming years will be to ensure that welfare legislation makes access to higher education a reality for increasing numbers of low-income women and provides these women and their families a real route out of poverty.

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