Federal Work Study Can be Great Again

Blog Post
March 29, 2017

Update: New America along with thirteen organizations released a set of recommendations for Federal Work-Study reform on April 26, 2017. Read the recommendations here.

In one of the many surprises to emerge from last week’s skinny budget, the White House has  proposed “significant cuts” to Federal Work-Study, a financial aid program that helps needy students afford college by giving them access to jobs. Despite multiple evaluations attesting to the effectiveness of the program for helping low-income students complete college and find jobs quickly after they graduate, the Administration has determined that the program is more than we can afford. They couldn’t be more wrong.

Work-study could help fulfill a core promise of the Trump campaign: to create more jobs and broader opportunities for Americans at risk of being left behind. In fact, with a few well-targeted reforms, Federal Work-Study is the kind of program the Trump Administration should consider growing. As the cost of higher education continues to rise, more and more students have no choice but to work while they are in school. According to one recent study, 70 percent of undergraduates have a job and 40 percent work more than 30 hours a week. The Federal Work-Study program makes it easier for students who have to work to find the kinds of jobs that are flexible enough to accommodate a student’s schedule and that pay better wages than local fast food restaurants or retail stores.

With an annual budget of just under $1 billion, the Federal Work-Study is already small—too small given its proven track record and the large number of students that could benefit from it. Cutting the program will make no real dent in federal spending, but it will make it considerably harder for the roughly 700,000 students who participate in the program each year to complete their studies.

Helping students work their way through school and gain on-the-job experience seems like just the kind of program many Republicans would support—and they have. Work study has enjoyed broad bipartisan support for more than five decades. But the program is far from perfect. Two reforms, in particular, would help this program live up to its potential:  

  • Fixing the Funding Formula: Federal work-study dollars are currently distributed through an archaic and inflexible formula that directs a large share of funds to a relatively small number of private colleges that do not serve many low-income students. Private schools receive about 45 percent of federal work-study funds, despite enrolling only about a quarter of undergraduates. Meanwhile, only 11 percent of the program’s funds go to community colleges, which enroll nearly 40 percent of all undergraduates. Work-study dollars also flow disproportionately to schools in the Northeast, despite the fact that the largest concentrations of low-income students attend public institutions in the South and Southwest. This funding formula can and should be fixed.
  • Connecting Work-Study Jobs to Student’s Career Goals: Federal work-study could also be a much more effective tool for helping students gain career relevant work experience while they are in college. Too many work-study jobs involve re-shelving books or staffing desks at the recreation center. It doesn’t have to be that way. Evidence points to the value of career-relevant work experience for students, which often comes in the form of an internship. But many students can’t afford to work as unpaid interns. Work-study could fill that void for thousands of students every year, if the colleges ensure the jobs they make available to students are relevant to their career or educational goals. This would bring the federal work-study program back into alignment with the original vision for the program—to help students earn money for college and gain relevant work experience.

Both of these weaknesses—the poor targeting and the lack of connections with a student’s career or educational interests—can be solved. In fact, there are a number of excellent policy proposals floating around Washington that do just that.

We like to think that higher education is the great equalizer—that a poor kid getting a college education is set up for a good paying job. But access to good jobs is not equal for students from high- and low-income families. Too often, low-income students have to find their own jobs and end up in low-paying, dead-end retail and food-service jobs that have nothing to do with their studies or career aspirations; jobs that will not help them build professional networks, resumes, or relevant experience. A well-designed work-study program would help those students gain access to high quality work opportunities and help them pay for college—and that’s a program millions of Americans could use.