Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation

From work-first to learn first : navigating educational choices among TANF recipients through the lens of possible selves and stigma

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  • Individuals who are parents and students on TANF experience challenges accessing and persisting in higher education. This study explored the experiences of TANF recipients who are navigating a return to higher education and the impact of college on how they construct a future self. Two theoretical frameworks were used to help inform our understanding of TANF recipients’ experiences in the context of higher education: Possible Selves (Markus & Nurius, 1986) and Goffman’s (1963) framework of stigma. Loveday, Lowell, and Jones (2016) cite a need for research on possible selves in the context of lesser-explored identity categories, and they specifically call out gaps in understanding in relation to individuals who grew up in poverty and/or navigate poverty as an adult. Less is known about how utilizing welfare programs while enrolled in higher education enhances or limits individual perceptions of a possible self in a post-welfare future. Welfare stigma has been shown to deter eligible applicants navigating poverty from utilizing critical programs and support services to address the health and well-being of themselves and their families, including higher education. Therefore, leaning on Goffman’s theory of stigma and Markus & Nurius’s concept of possible selves, this study explored TANF recipients’ experiences of accessing education as part of their JOBS program compliance. Data were collected through semi-structured interviews with 31 participants of the Trades Navigation pilot program through Linn Benton Community College. Interviews were analyzed following the framework of Braun and Clarke’s (2022) thematic analysis to address research questions as well as explore any emergent themes. Results focused on participant experiences of changes in their hoped-for future selves through participation in higher education. The study also explores how stigma experiences related to utilizing the means-tested cash assistance program Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) influenced decisions about accessing higher education and academic progress. The study participants experienced an expanded sense of future possibilities for themselves and their families, which included changes in their professional goals, their individual sense of self, and their capacity to impact their communities. Anticipated stigma was reported to influence decisions about whether to pursue higher education while receiving TANF benefits and the perception of participants’ abilities to obtain support for their goals through self-advocacy. The theory of possible selves supports the pattern of findings that with increased resources to create an accessible pathway to higher education, study participants did expand their capacity for constructing a hoped-for self for which education became essential. The stigma framework supported participant experiences regarding anticipated stigma. Study participants stated various ways anticipation of being stigmatized impacted their choices regarding whether and by what means to pursue higher education. However, this study did not confirm experiences of enacted stigma within DHS or higher education changed education-related choices. For future consideration, a stigma framework could be applied to better understand the relationship between expanded resources and support network and stigma related to poverty among TANF and other low-income student populations.
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