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Before sociologist Tressie MacMillan Cottom went to pursue her PhD, she was working at a cosmetology school in her native North Carolina. The school emphasized that she was not an admissions officer, but instead focused on enrollment. The pitch was more akin to sales ("Join now!" "Start today!") than the staid evaluation that liberal arts grads like Tressie knew well. 

The school was near the end of a bus line, next to a popular fish stand. The would-be students who called and visited were not typically fresh out of high school, but in the middle of busy adult lives. And they needed a lot more from Tressie than a student might typically ask of someone helping to fill out financial aid documents. 

"I held babies, I held hands, I gave them rides home when their boyfriends took their car and the buses had stopped running."

At the end of many meetings, the women she met with would slide a piece of paper across her desk. She soon discovered, this was welfare paperwork, specifically an accounting of the time the women spent seeking or enrolling in a short-term credential program. 

Why her school? Why not a community college? The answer has to do with the road not taken ... in welfare reform.

Hear the full story on the final episode of Marketplace's Wealth & Poverty podcast, The Uncertain Hour

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Follow Krissy Clark at @kristianiaclark