Saturday, December 29, 2007

Education as a way to escape poverty

from The Cincinnati Enquirer


Denenne Watkins never imagined she’d be at home this holiday season marveling about her college grades.

But the Westwood resident will be doing just that after earning two Bs and an A in three University of Cincinnati courses she took this fall. That’s the first term UC has offered courses through the Accounting and Credibility Together center downtown, the welfare-diversion program known as ACT.

“It’s such a blessing to be in the ACT family,” said Watkins, 35, who has four sons ages 14 to 20. “They offer all kinds of support. You know, school is expensive!”

ACT pays the difference between whatever the students can get in financial aid and full costs of the classes offered by UC’s Raymond Walters College. That difference usually ends up being about $2,000 a year, and ACT, which hosts the classes in its offices on Walnut Street downtown, is raising money privately to try to fund the program.

“After all these years, we suddenly figured out a couple of years ago that the only way we were going to get these families out of poverty is education,” said Carol Gibbs, founder and chief executive officer of ACT.

Classes this fall included nearly 40 students in offerings such as English composition and medical insurance. Raymond Walters committed to a package of courses that could lead to a two-year degree in business or medical billing.
It’s only one of the activities at the welfare-diversion program that’s available to clients who have gone to Hamilton County for assistance because of a specific financial need. It sees about 1,300 new families a year, all of them with children and earning no more than 50 percent above the federal poverty line.

For ACT, the program fills the need of many clients to continue their education and give them a good chance at jobs in professions that need workers, such as medical billing and coding. For UC, it broadens access to its programs and could help boost enrollment in a period of tight budget restraints.

“I think we’re going to support them, even if we have some lower-enrollment courses that lose money,” said Bob Howell, interim associate dean for academic affairs at Raymond Walters. He said he hopes the courses will open to non-ACT clients soon.

Rachael Allstatter, director of the medical assisting and medical billing program at Raymond Walters, said her students in the fall quarter at ACT were mindful of the impact the classes could have in their careers.

“They’re very into knowing that this will lead them into looking for a better job,” she said. “This gives them the opportunity to say, ‘Yes, I’m still viable in the work setting.’”

That description certainly fits Watkins, who works part-time and has an associate’s degree. She wants to use the medical-billing courses to work for an insurance company.

“I really wanted to get back in there (to college),” she said. “The opportunity just never presented itself.”

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