‘Paycheck Plus’ Tests Whether Giving Low-Income Single Men an Annual Stipend Boosts Stability

Young men are a worrisome lot for many. Kay Hymowitz writes of this latest generation of twenty-something men as stunted, man-children who refuse to grow up (and she’s not alone). Others worry about boys falling behind in a school system designed for kids who can sit still and follow along. Indeed, we seem to spend an inordinate amount of time debating whether these are even legitimate worries.

What we don’t spend much time doing, however, is paying attention to the group of young men that deserves our worry: the young men who are barely scraping by in low-wage jobs, if they’re working at all; those who are filling up our prisons, or starting precarious relationships with their baby momma– the men on the edge of society looking for a way in but finding few doors.

That might change with a new experiment in New York City called Paycheck Plus. The program builds on the success of the Earned Income Tax Credit and offers young, single men a wage supplement of up to $2,000 a year, depending on their earnings. It’s unique because the vast majority of social welfare programs target families, not singles. That means that a man and woman working at Target earning $11,000 a year are treated very differently. The young mother of two, for example, gets an EITC of $6,000 on top of her earnings, while the single person gets nothing.

Yet as the panelists pointed out, single men are struggling mightily, and their inability to provide financially for a family is one important reason for the rise of single motherhood.

“This is pretty unique and pretty exciting,” Isabel Sawhill told a gathering at Brookings in unveiling the program.

Gordon Berlin, the president of MDRC,  the “intellectual godfather” of the idea according to Sawhill, first broached this idea in a 2007 issue of the Future of Children. Now that it has come to fruition, MDRC–our partner in this Network–will be evaluating the pilot’s success.

How it works. The program targets single men and women without children who earn less than $30,000 a year. The stipend varies by annual earnings, and begins phasing out after $20,000 a year.  A young man earning $10.40 an hour, or $18,000 a year, would be eligible for extra $2,000 a year, for example. A person earning $20,000 would get $1600, eventually phasing out to zero as earnings increased.

Paycheck Plus is modeled after the EITC, which has been called the most effective antipoverty program in decades. The EITC has been shown to increase employment, earnings, and income. It also has positive effects on kids. Yet the EITC is designed for families with children. (It does offer a stipend for singles but it is very small.)  PayCheck Plus is aiming to remedy that.

The program is only being tested at this time. Over the next several years, MDRC will monitor whether the program encourages more single individuals (especially the most vulnerable men) to join the workforce, and whether it increases their income enough to encourage marriage and family formation. If it’s successful, and cost-effective, it may then be expanded nationwide.

Why it’s needed. As any economist will tell you, men with the least education are sucking wind in this economy. Wages for this group have fallen steadily since the 1970s, even as GDP has shot upward. A male high school dropout today earns 25% less than he would in 1973, even after adjusting for inflation. As the wages have fallen, many men have simply opted out of the workforce, taking on odd jobs off the books, or selling drugs, which too often leads to prison– or as Jamie Foxx put it, “mandatory college.”

Also, like it or not, low-wage work is here to stay. Going forward, these jobs will remain a big part of the range of available jobs. Five of the top six jobs by 2020 are those that will pay less than $24,000 a year.

Together, these problems describe an alarming landscape for disadvantage young  men with limited education. Raise the minimum wage is one answer to the problem–even though the political will is not yet there. The PayCheck Plus is another way. It’d be great if we could do both of course. In fact, this pilot may be a good test case for the combination approach, given that New York City is raising the minimum wage during the period of the study.

The program reminds me of another effort to raise family income, the New Hope program. There, too, working families were given a stipend that they could use for a variety of purposes as well as other supports that encouraged work. The results were very, very promising. Among all participants, including single men, work increased and poverty rates fell. For families with children, the extra income also boosted children’s performance and behavior in school.

The program’s impact will be closely watched by policymakers and others concerned about declining workforce participation. However, as Georgetown economist Harry Holzer told the Brookings panel, we should maybe lower our expectations. “I think [the program's effects] will be positive, but modest,” he told the audience. “The demand side of the market is problematic. Recovery is sluggish and will remain so through duration of the pilot. But even in strong job market, the folks we’re talking about are the last hired (black males, e.g).” Employers are ambivalent about hiring this group, and actually the ambivalence goes both ways. Men don’t want to work in these sectors. They’d much rather be in construction or some other industry that doesn’t require them to say “have a nice day” at the end of it all.

These and other questions will no doubt abound about the program, including its potential unintended consequences. The pilot study will examine many of these questions, and we’ll know the answers in about three years.



Helping Low-Income Teens Find the Right Path to College and Careers

Several smart projects are underway to encourage low-income young adults from underserved communities to not only attend college, but attend the college that best matches their ability and interests.

Far too many high-achieving young people from limited means end up in less selective colleges. One of the main reasons is their perception that they can’t possibly afford Northwestern or Yale, even though their grades put them in the running for acceptance to elite schools.

But a new study by Caroline Hoxby and Sarah Turner shows that the simple act of mailing some targeted information to prospective high-achieving students during the selection process boosts enrollment in well-matched selective colleges.

The study focused on teens who had SAT scores high enough to make it into the top 200 most selective colleges in the country. One group was mailed a packet of information that spelled out many of the big unknowns about college among this group, and specically tried to dispel the myth that they couldn’t afford it. They pointed out, for example, that elite schools typically offer ample scholarships, and other assistance.

The students who received the packet were significantly more likely to apply to colleges matching their abilities than those who did not. They also achieved first-year grades as good as the students who went to lesser schools.

As the researchers write:

The ECO-C Intervention causes students to applyto and enroll in colleges with higher graduation rates, greater instructional resources, and curriculum that is more geared toward students with very strong preparation like their own. Put another way, the ECO-C Intervention closes part of the college behavior”gap”between low-income and high-income students with the same level of achievement.

One would think that someone would have thought of this before–it’s just so simple and basic. But as the authors write, where’s the incentive?

No one postsecondary institution would have the incentive to conduct such an intervention since many of the benefits would accrue to other institutions. That is, the ECO-C Intervention produces benefits that are largely public. Thus, a natural host for such an intervention would be a pan-collegiate organization or other organization with social goals.

Also helping lower-income students is a program that MDRC and Bloom Associates have launched called the ECCO (Exploring College and Career Options) curriculum. Activities such as field trips to colleges and workplaces, lessons in what employers expect, and talks from professionals who came from similar backgrounds, motivate and inspire young adults. The curriculum focuses on helping students prepare for both college and career and exposes them to real-world experiences.

More broadly, the Lumina Foundation has outlined several policies that states can work toward to ensure that more Americans graduate from college. These include:

  • Set a specific state goal for attainment, and develop interim measures of progress. Promising measures include, according to their website, “creating a unified student unit record systems that link K-12, higher education, and workforce data; and to collect, publicly report, and use at the campus and state levels common metrics that measure progress in attainment, completion, costs, and affordability.
  • (My favorite) Focus scarce state resources on higher education productivity and completion–that is, rather than funding streams that reward only enrollment numbers, reward graduation rates also.
  • Align K-12 and higher education standards and assessment (the Common Core is a big step in this direction).

Lumina is also partnering with Innocentive to “crowdsource” solutions for increasing higher educational attainment.

There are many other efforts underway to help teens from less stellar schools, low-income families, and underserved communities. These are but a handful. But what makes these stand out is their commitment to evaluating their progress with high-quality methods.


A Call by Higher Education Leaders to Increase Graduation Rates in U.S. Colleges


Colleges and universities are (finally) starting to look beyond enrollment and get serious about ensuring that students not only enroll but graduate. In an open letter to the higher education community, the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment calls on colleges and universities to find ways to graduate more students.

“We concentrate most on the admissions side of things, getting the bodies in, and there’s no one in charge of seeing that they get through and graduate,” E. Gordon Gee, the president of Ohio State University and chairman of the National Commission on Higher Education Attainment told the New York Times.

The college graduation rate at four-year universities hovers around 40% (and higher at community colleges), even while college admissions has seldom been higher. “This is an unacceptable loss of human potential — a waste of time, resources, and opportunity,” the commission writes. “For all students, traditional or not, offering access without a commitment to help students complete their degrees is a hollow promise.” It is also a threat to future economic growth. By 2018, the U.S. is projected to be at least 3 million college-educated workers short of meeting demand.

“We call on our colleagues to take prompt, decisive action to address this goal. Deeds and results, not rhetoric, are what the nation needs.”

The commission calls for a range of creative solutions, and for more open discussion of what works and why (and of course, being academics, they call for more data). Some of the ideas include giving students credit for previous learning, designing for more services and flexibility for nontraditional students—-the majority of students today— and other options, such as  midnight classes, easier credit transfers and more online classes. One that caught my eye is to narrow student choice to encourage completion. As anyone who has stood paralyzed in front of 150 different versions of toothpaste knows, this one makes sense.

The commission enters an already-raging debate. As Inside Higher Ed  reports, the call stops short of endorsing many of the facets of the “completion agenda,” such as the Gates and Lumina foundations often suggest. While the “completion agenda” supporters offer some of the same solutions, they go one step farther and tie funding to graduation rates. Some, notably the Association of American Colleges and Universities (AACU) has voiced objections to this, arguing that the onus should not only rest with universities:

Yet, many of [the suggestions] rest on the simplistic assumption that the causes of low graduation rates are primarily a matter of neglect, lack of awareness, misplaced priorities, or incompetent leadership. The assumption that underlies specifically the proposed performance funding policies is that, if money isn’t explicitly tied to graduation, educators and leaders won’t focus on the issue because they just won’t pay attention or they just don’t care whether their students actually graduate. The problem is more complex than these assumptions suggest.

One, small but promising example of a program that has helped more students graduate from community college is “learning communities.”

As a recent evaluation of one such program in Kingsborough College by MDRC points out, the learning communities increased graduation rates among students by 4.6 percentage points. And the program was cost-effective as well. Another report synthesizes the results from six additional programs with only modest, short-term effects.

Learning communities place small groups of students together in two or more thematically linked courses, usually for a single semester, with added support, such as extra advising or tutoring. The theory is that these communities give students the chance to form stronger relationships with each other and their professors. They also gain access to more support, and they in turn engage more deeply with the integrated content. MDRC has followed this experiment for six years now.

One thing those involved learned, however, is that the most effective programs were those that were more comprehensive. In this case, they included three courses rather than two, and they recruited both lagging students and college-ready students.

There are many other novel approaches to increasing graduation rates. However we do it, it needs to be done. As the Commission says, “deeds and results, not rhetoric, are what the nation need.”

Hispanics’ College Attendance Surges


A new report by the Pew Hispanic finds that college enrollment among Hispanics has risen 24% between 2009 and 2010, such that 1.8 million Hispanics aged 18-24 are now enrolled in college, both two- and four-year, public and private. Hispanics now outnumber blacks on college campuses in general. Their numbers, however, are lower than blacks in four-year colleges.

While enrollment among Hispanics surged by about 350,000, between 2009 and 2010, the number of white youth on campus declined by roughly similar numbers. This is the largest percentage decline since 1993 and reflects in part a shrinking age group population. The number of black students increased by 88,000 and Asians by 43,000.

The growth in Hispanic enrollment has been spurred by a mixture of population growth and educational strides, the Pew report notes. “In 1972, just 5% of the nation’s 18- to 24-year-olds were Hispanic. By 2010, that share rose to 19%,” the report notes. However, the growth in the one year that this report focuses on was only 7%. More important, the report notes, is the growing educational attainment. In 2010, 32% of young Hispanics (age 18-24) were enrolled in college, up from 13% in 1972 and 27% in 2009.

Should the Dream Act legislation pass, which provides a conditional path to citizenship for undocumented immigrants in good legal standing who complete a college degree may increase the campus numbers further.

Overall, college enrollment is at an all-time high among 18-24 year olds, with 12.2 million enrolled (driven largely by the Hispanic surge).  Yet if history holds, a sizable share will not graduate within six years, however. In 2010, for example, only 39% of white youth aged 25-29 had a BA, and only 13% of Hispanics, and 19% of black young adults had a BA. Asian youth do better, with nearly half holding a BA.

Several programs are showing promise in improving persistence, particularly in community colleges.  In Chicago, for example, College Match supports students who are prepared for college but are “undermatching” themselves to college–that is, they’re choosing schools for which they are overqualified academically or worse, they’re not attending at all. Better alignment of abilities and schools is thought to improve the odds of graduation. With advice and support, the program helps students better align their capabilities.

The pilot programs in three Chicago Public Schools show promise. Compared with similar students in these same schools, the Match students chose to attend more selective colleges (35% vs approximately 28% of their peers). Only 23% of Match students intended to enroll in two-year or proprietary colleges or still had no plans to continue on after high school. While preliminary still, the findings are nonetheless encouraging. The program is being evaluated by MDRC.

Another program helps community college students with the soft skills that are thought to improve outcomes. At Guildford Technical Community College in Greensboro, NC, counselors and others took part in a program to help develop students’ study habits, time management, and responsibility as well as sharpen their understanding of their own emotions, habits, and motivation and commitment, among other soft skills. All the students in the program were taking developmental courses to build basic skills before embarking on their other courses. Many students who must first take developmental courses are often the least acculturated to college. Early results suggest that the socioemotional insights were helpful to the students in improving their on-task motivation and commitment to school. However, they had no early impact on their academic achievement, pointing to the need to supplement these skill-builders with other programs focused on academic success.

Finally, “performance based scholarships” — offering a stipend to students who achieve and maintain a certain grade point average — show promise. A recent evaluation by MDRC of one such program implemented in six states finds that in all but one state, students who received the stipend earned more credits (two to four more) in both the first and second term than those who did not receive a stipend. The gain in credits grew with time. Students receiving the stipend were also more likely to meet end-of-the-term benchmarks (such as earning a certain number of credits with a certain GPA).



“Learning Communities” Do Less to Bolster Community College Success Than Thought


Those in higher education have for years been working to increase the graduation rates at community colleges, which currently hover at just under 50%. Dismal, in other words. As we’ve reported here, some of these efforts, like the financial incentives, are showing promise.  Early studies of learning communities also showed initial promise. However, as a recent report of a more broad-based evaluation finds, the early evidence of learning communities has begun to falter.

Community colleges are the workhorse of the higher education system, educating those who are returning to school after a stint in the workforce, or those who in high school were unsure about what they wanted to do, who were less than stellar students, or who were wanted to save money by enrolling in a community college with plans to later transfer to a four-year school. For low-income students, community college is often the only viable option, as the costs of four-year colleges spiral ever upward.

But with more than half of those enrolling never making it to graduation day, one worries that community colleges are quickly become a revolving door of frustration and dashed plans. That’s why policymakers and others have begun experimenting with ways to engage students and encourage them to persist at school. Experiments have sought to build up counseling services, add more day care on site, offer classes online, and even offer students a financial incentive to persist.

One idea that showed modestly encouraging results early on was to form a more cohesive learning community by offering tightly coordinated courses with the same fellow students in each class. In “learning communities,” professors coordinate their teaching—making direct connections between, say, a European history lesson and Henry V in English Lit. The idea is to create a bond between the group of students, who stay together across the courses, and to make clearer connections between what they’re learning, thus leading them to become more engaged and less likely to drop out.

As we’ve reported, our partner MDRC has evaluated several learning communities in the past under the Opening Doors program. The evaluations were encouraging enough that the Department of Education took up the mantle and funded the evaluation of six additional learning communities as part of the Learning Communities Demonstration. The six community colleges are in Houston, two in New York City, Baltimore, Tampa, and Merced, California. MDRC is evaluating these learning communities in partnership with the National Center for Postsecondary Research.

The results from four of those schools are now in, and as the authors of the latest report put it, “Although the results vary a bit from program to program, overall the findings show that when learning community have impacts, they tend to be modest and concentrated in the semester in which the program group students are enrolled in learning communities.”

All the evaluations have included a control group and a comparison group—considered the gold standard of evaluation research. The most recent study, “Breaking New Ground,” by Mary Visher and Jedediah Teres, focuses on Kingsborough Community College in New York City, as well as a review of the results from three other colleges.

They find that the learning community at Kingsborough, which focused on two integrated courses and a seminar that linked what students were learning to jobs in the field, did little to improve enrollment/retention or credits earned in either the semester when students participated in the learning community or in the semester immediately following. Notably, the program was offered for only one semester, which might be too short to have a lasting impact. Also, Kingsborough offers a very comprehensive set of counseling and engagement services to all its students. Since students in the control group had access to these supports, it might have diluted the impact of the learning communities.

Across all four schools, the only statistically significant differences between the students in the learning community and those in a control group were in developmental (remedial) courses, and then only in Houston. (The original Opening Doors program in New York City also showed definite impacts.) In those instances, students were more likely to pass developmental courses than those in the control group.

For those who had pinned their hopes on learning communities as one solution to the high dropout rate in community colleges, the results must be disappointing. However, it is always good to know what works and what doesn’t, rather than continuing to chase phantom results, especially with ever tighter budgets. Two site evaluations remain, which might show different results. However, as the authors report, “the evidence is mounting that single-semester learning communities alone may not be enough to overcome the multiple barriers that many students face in achieving their education and career objectives.”