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Perla Ortiz’s job at the St. Edward’s University admissions office last year helped her pay for books, groceries and other necessities. The job was a victim of the campus shutdown because of Covid-19, and Ortiz has moved back in with her family. “I’m barely able to pay for expenses,” she says. Credit: Perla Ortiz

The 20 hours a week Perla Ortiz worked in the St. Edward’s University admissions office last year was the glue that kept her academic life together. Paid through the federal work-study program, the $1,500 she earned per semester covered the cost of books, groceries and other necessities.

Now admissions has gone virtual because of Covid-19 and Ortiz has lost her campus job at the Austin, Texas, private university. Unable to afford rent in Austin, she’s moved back with her family in El Paso.

“I’m barely able to pay for expenses,” said Ortiz, 21, whose work-study role was to mail acceptance letters and scholarship notices to applicants.

Work-study jobs may seem like a perk, but in a normal year, the program provides nearly $1.2 billion in help for college for more than 612,000 students across the country. They are paid at least minimum wage for part-time jobs ranging from receptionists in college offices to attendants in campus gyms or aides in local schools. The federal government typically covers about 50 percent of the wages, and the institutions pay the rest.

Many of those jobs were on campuses that have gone completely or mostly online during the pandemic, and colleges and universities have not been able to adapt all of them to this new reality.

Work-study annually provides nearly $1.2 billion for more than 612,000 students.

In a national survey conducted by an institute at the University of California, Berkeley, 53 percent of low-income and working-class students said they had lost wages from on-campus jobs.

That, compounded by confusing changes to work-study rules, has thrown some students’ finances out of balance.

“The loss of this important form of financial aid can be devastating,” the U.S. Department of Education said in an advisory about Covid-related interruptions in work-study jobs.

Related: While focus is on fall, students’ choices about college will have a far longer impact

St. Edward’s told Ortiz that she must work on campus to get paid through the work-study program, she said, even though the office where she was assigned is shut down.

“I understand the circumstances are hectic,” Ortiz said, “but when my living situation is affected by it there’s a sense of urgency on my part.”

Even in normal times, students whose financial aid offers say they will be eligible for work-study jobs don’t automatically get them; they have to apply and be accepted. Nor is work-study guaranteed from one year to the next.

St. Edward’s is trying to help students affected by the shutdown find other jobs, said Jennifer Beck, the university’s financial aid director.

“I understand the circumstances are hectic, but when my living situation is affected by it there’s a sense of urgency on my part.”

Perla Ortiz, who lost her work-study job because of the pandemic

“If a student doesn’t get a work-study job, there are still plenty of other opportunities for employment on campus,” Beck said. She said there are also off-campus work-study positions available with nonprofit partners.

Ortiz said she hasn’t been able to find one from which she could earn as much as the job she lost, which she said paid “well above minimum wage.”

And though she’s a senior, a problem for other students is that, unlike income from work-study jobs, any pay they earn from non-work-study jobs counts against them when colleges are determining how much financial aid to give them in the following year.

St. Edward’s University. The university says it’s trying to help students who lost their work-study jobs because of the pandemic shutdown. Credit: Jackie Mader/The Hechinger Report

Colleges and universities are allowed — but not required — to use federal funds to pay students who lost work-study jobs due to the pandemic, said a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education who asked not to be named. Schools can also choose to shift some of those funds to emergency grants for students in need, which St. Edward’s and other institutions said they have done.

The work-study program was already widely criticized for disproportionately helping higher-income rather than lower-income students. That’s because of a nearly-60-year-old formula under which the money is distributed to institutions based on how much they received the year before. More prestigious universities and colleges that have been involved the longest — and generally serve more affluent students — get more than less prestigious ones.

Private four-year universities enroll only 14 percent of undergraduates, but receive 38 percent of work-study money, while community colleges, which take almost half of all students and serve large numbers of low-income Americans, get 20 percent, according to the Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment.

That means that, even before the pandemic, a student at a private university from a family in the top quarter of income was more likely to get work-study money than a student at a community college from the bottom quarter.

St. Edward’s paid about $580,000 to 305 federal work-study students last year, Beck said, while New York University paid more than $8 million to 3,400 students in 2018-19, the last year for which federal figures are available.

Related: Amid pandemic, graduate student workers are winning long-sought contracts

The job that student Leslie Hinojo held last year as a receptionist in the campus career and advising center at Green River College is no longer available because of the pandemic. “They said if the job was posted again I was welcome to apply again.” Hinojo has moved back in with her family. Credit: Leslie Hinojo

Several schools that get among the largest federal work-study payouts, including NYU, the City University of New York system and the University of Southern California, either declined to answer questions about what is happening to their students this year, or did not respond to interview requests.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration has proposed significantly reducing the program.

As some work-study opportunities disappear, among the students left in the lurch is Leslie Hinojo, a 21-year-old single mother who in June finished her first year at Green River College, a community college south of Seattle.

Hinojo worked 20 hours a week last year as a receptionist in the campus career and advising center, but said she was told in June that her position would no longer be available because of the pandemic.

“They really didn’t say much to me. They said if the job was posted again I was welcome to apply again.”

Leslie Hinojo, who lost her work-study job because of the pandemic

“They really didn’t say much to me,” said Hinojo, who is trying to figure out her future while temporarily living with relatives in Mexico. “They said if the job was posted again I was welcome to apply again.”

Some institutions are finding remote jobs for work-study students. At the University of California, Santa Barbara, for instance, these include data entry, coding, graphic design, customer service and running social media.

Missing out on work-study jobs can damage more than a student’s bank account, said Judith Scott-Clayton, an associate professor of economics and education at Teachers College at Columbia University who tracks federal work-study spending. (The Hechinger Report, which produced this story, is housed at Teachers College.) The program provides valuable work experience, she said.

Related: As students fill summer courses, many ask: Why aren’t all colleges open in the summers?

Students at Auburn University answer calls before the Covid-19 pandemic. Work-study jobs annually provide nearly $1.2 billion to more than 612,000 students, but the program has been thrown into disarray as campuses impose Covid-19 restrictions or go virtual Credit: Dave Martin/AP

“It can be a very meaningful part of a student’s college experience,” she said. “It’s not so much the money. It’s the type of jobs.”

Among students affected nationwide are tutors with America Reads/America Counts, which pairs work-study college students with children at nearby schools who need reading or math help. Arizona State University, which has more than 2,000 work-study students each year, including many with America Reads/America Counts, is trying to figure out what to do with the tutors as schools remain virtual, said Melissa Pizzo, Arizona State’s associate vice president for enrollment services.

Several universities, including the University of Michigan, said they are providing more work-study jobs this year.

Related: Urgency of getting people back to work gives new momentum to “microcredentials”

Officials in the Houston Community College system have been scrambling to find replacement positions for students who lost their work-study jobs, said Bianca Matlock, the system’s financial aid director. The colleges are trying to partner with the city of Houston to fill those gaps, she said.

The system also hopes to be part of a federal experiment to pair work-study students with private companies, which is prohibited under current rules. The Houston schools hope to team up with businesses at the local port and at medical facilities, Matlock said, which could help students jump-start careers at a time of high unemployment.

The change would also help pandemic-proof the work-study program by opening more opportunities if a job disappears, she said.

“Not all students are going to school to get a degree,” Matlock said. “Some are hoping to start work in a year, and we need to cater to those students as well.”

This story about work-study was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our higher education newsletter.

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Matt Krupnick is a freelance reporter and editor who contributes regularly to The New York Times and the Hechinger Report. He was a reporter with the Center for Public Integrity's State Integrity Investigation...

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