Divided We Learn

Do federal work-study jobs prepare students for careers – and should they?

The Trump Administration proposes cutting work-study funding almost by half

Most federal work-study jobs don’t prepare students for life after graduation, according to a March report from the Urban Institute. But any efforts to improve the program could be made more difficult if the Department of Education’s 2020 budget proposal goes through.

“In today’s economy, where there is a strong focus on the role of relevant work experience in easing the transition from college to the workforce, there is good reason to focus on the nature of the jobs FWS provides and the marketable skills these jobs foster,” wrote Sandy Baum, the report’s author. According to her report, titled “Rethinking Work Study: Incremental Reform is Not Enough,” just 32 percent of work-study jobs are related to students’ coursework.

It was published three days after the White House released its proposals for reforming the Higher Education Act. The third proposal echoes Baum’s point: “Congress should reform the Federal Work Study (FWS) program to support workforce and career-oriented opportunities for low income undergraduate students, not just subsidized employment as a means of financial aid.” And Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos applauded the proposals. “There are 7.3 million unfilled jobs in the United States, yet too many Americans remain out of the workforce because they lack the skills necessary to seize these opportunities,” she said in a statement.

But Donald Trump’s administration is calling for the Federal Work-Study program to improve with far less money than the program has traditionally had. The 2019 budget for the program is $1.13 billion, but the Department is requesting just $500 million for it in 2020 – cutting it almost in half.

To be fair, the program, which started in the mid-1960s, began as a way to help lower-income undergraduate and graduate students with their educational costs, not as a career-training program. In the 1965-1966 school year, 1,095 schools took part in the program. By 2013-2014, there were more than 3,000 participating. Colleges receive grants that cover up to 75 percent of a student’s pay for a work-study job. How much each institution receives is based on a historical formula that critics say disadvantages those whose students typically have more financial need, such as community colleges.

Related: Task force proposes changes in federal work-study financial-aid program

During the 2016-2017 school year, for example, City University of New York schools together received the largest Federal Work-Study disbursement – $9,801,495 for about 4,800 students. But they were followed by a host of top-tier universities with wealthier student bodies than found on most campuses. New York University, second on the list, received $7,553,690 for 3,434 students. It was followed by Columbia University, the University of Southern California and the University of California at Los Angeles, in that order. Cornell was No. 12 and the University of Pennsylvania was No. 14.

The program may have been designed solely to help students cover all the costs that come with going to college, such as books, transportation and food. But times have changed.

“We know that when students graduate from college and go into the labor market, that having some kind of work experience that is relevant to their future employers is very important,” Baum said earlier this week.

According to a 2017 report from the National Association of Colleges and Employers, 65 percent of employers said they prefer to hire candidates with relevant work experience; only 26 percent said they prefer candidates with any type of work experience, even if it’s not relevant.

Some argue that virtually any job can offer relevant skills for future employment.

“Students in work-study jobs and even in non-work-study jobs develop all sorts of competencies, whether it’s professionalism and work ethic, or teamwork, collaboration, written skills, customer service skills,” Jenny Heller, president of the National Student Employment Association, said. These types of skills will serve them well for getting an internship or post-graduate job, she said.

And for many schools, it’s also not realistic to make sure that all work-study jobs connect with students’ coursework.

“We have about 500 students on work-study. It’s just not possible to find all 500 students jobs in their majors,” said Heller, who’s also associate director of financial aid for student employment at Wheaton College in Massachusetts. Wheaton has about 1,600 students.

Heller isn’t sure the federal government should focus on the work-study program when reauthorizing the HEA, which determines how federal aid is distributed to students and schools. Many colleges, including Wheaton, are already looking into enhancing their student employment programs, she said, to make sure students understand the skills they’re developing.

But Baum said putting less money into Federal Work-Study, won’t help.

“This amount of money is not going to solve the problem,” she said. “It’s lip service to something that is, in fact, important.”

This story about the federal work study program was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

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Delece Smith-Barrow

Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor for higher education at The Hechinger Report. She was a 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where… See Archive

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