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

Current formula steers the money to higher-income, not lower-income students

A report by the principal group of university financial-aid administrators is calling for a change in the federal work-study program that would steer more of the money to institutions with larger shares of lower-income students and less to long-established colleges with larger proportions of higher-income ones.

The report also recommends doing more to ensure that incoming students promised work-study in their offers of financial aid actually get it.

Money for the taxpayer-funded work-study program, which places students into jobs in dining halls, libraries, and other places on and off campus, is divided up under a decades-old formula based not on how many students at a university actually need it, but on how much the university received the year before, and how much it charges.

That means 40 percent of work-study funding goes to private, nonprofit universities, which enroll 17 percent of all U.S. students, only a small proportion of whom are from the lowest income levels, the College Board reports.

“Today’s allocation of campus-based funds largely reflects a 40-year-old model,” says the report, by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators in partnership with the nonprofit think tank Public Agenda. “The base guarantee assures funding for certain long-established institutions, leaving less funding available for growing schools serving increasing numbers of financially needy students.”

Those schools are principally community colleges, which enroll 30 percent of the nation’s postsecondary students—many with low incomes—but get only 16 percent of work-study money, according to the College Board.

The result is that a quarter of the students who receive work-study money come from families whose annual income exceeds $80,000, and one in 10 from households with $100,000 in earnings or more, federal data show. And wealthier recipients get more of it, on average — $2,300 for students from families that make $100,000 or more versus $2,100 for recipients whose families make less than $20,000.

It’s one of several ways in which programs meant to help lower-income students disproportionately benefit higher-income ones.

The report proposes eliminating the base guarantee that perpetuates this.

It also calls for colleges and universities to do a better job ensuring that incoming students promised work-study money actually get it. In a survey of university administrators, the report says, one-third reported that fewer than half of students offered work-study jobs at their institutions had gotten one.

In some cases, that was because the students found they could earn more outside the work-study system, or wanted work experience that more closely related to their expected careers. In others, it was because they applied but weren’t hired, or couldn’t find work-study jobs they wanted.

Some advocates for students complain that financial-aid offers that include work-study don’t specify that jobs aren’t guaranteed.

The task force report was funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. (The Gates Foundation is also a funder of The Hechinger Report, which produced this story.)

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