April 1, 2021
A tragic number of students have vanished from higher education due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Nationwide, there was an almost four percent decline in college enrollment this fall. At community colleges, that decline stood at a steep 10 percent. This spring, declining enrollment has continued, disproportionately impacting Indigenous, Black, and Latino students.
These trends are continuing, compounding inequality and erasing our progress on college access. Across the country, high school students filing for federal financial aid to go to college is down nine percent. This trend is even worse in high schools with more low-income students (down 12 percent) and schools with high concentrations of students of color (down 14 percent).
For many students, the need to make money for their families is driving this exodus. Providing these students with subsidized work study job opportunities on campus, in conjunction with their studies, could bring thousands back to college.
For example, in a recent episode of the radio show This American Life, the hosts profile Valerie Gonzalez who works for the College Advising Corps in Texas. At this point last year, 70 percent of seniors at Valerie’s assigned high school had applied to colleges in Texas. For this year's senior class, it is only 45 percent. “Many of my kids don't want to go to college because they're already working,” she explains.
Work obligations also drove many other students out of community college. In a recent New America survey, we found that financial concerns were the leading reason students did not re-enroll in community college this fall. Forty-one percent said they had to work, and 31 percent said they could no longer afford their program. We know that the majority of community college students are working learners. With the unemployment rate still hovering over six percent--and even higher for younger workers--we also know that a lot of community colleges students lost their jobs over this last year--or took full-time jobs that now make it difficult to resume their studies.
We need to provide students with more work-study opportunities that allow them to work part-time and study full-time to make the transition back to school possible.
But the 50-50 margin in the Senate means that near-term legislation will be limited to the annual budget reconciliation bill, which is immune from the Senate’s 60-vote supermajority requirement for new legislation. Senate rules prohibit including detailed new programs in budget reconciliation bills, particularly provisions that don’t directly affect the budget. And so, the best hope for creating a program to provide jobs to returning students is expanding and adding to an existing program: Federal Work Study.
The Federal Work Study (FWS) program provides funding to colleges and universities to create work-study jobs for their students. The funding subsidizes the wages for these jobs, which makes them attractive to employers. In most cases, the jobs are on-campus and the college or university is the employer, but not always. Many work-study jobs are with local community-based organizations and non-profits and a small share are with private companies.
Currently, FWS is poorly targeted. Only 11 percent of FWS goes to community colleges and 39 percent goes to private non-profits. In higher education, 39 percent of students are enrolled in community college, while only around 16 percent attend private non-profits. As a result only two percent of community college students are able to benefit from these subsidized jobs. But low-income students are much more likely to be enrolled in community colleges and we know from the research that low-income students, who would have to work no matter what, are more likely to benefit from FWS.
To address this, the new funding would have two parts. First, Congress should create a new Federal Work Study funding stream that only flows to community colleges and is based on their headcount and the proportion of Pell students they enroll. This money could be used immediately to expand subsidized job opportunities for returning students at community colleges, relieving some of their money worries.
At the same time, Congress should add a complementary competitive grant program to FWS to expand the capacity of community colleges to prospect for student jobs, not only while they are enrolled, but also when they graduate. We know that many community colleges sometimes struggle to find good jobs for students that connect to their course of study because they simply lack the two or three full time people whose job it should be to shepherd these opportunities. This type of program would help staff and build the relationships between community colleges and employers to get students into good, subsidized jobs. It would also allow community colleges to participate in efforts like Handshake along with four-year schools.
Many students are struggling to enroll in community colleges for the first time. Others are struggling to stay enrolled. People across the country are struggling to find good jobs. With additional federal investment, we can support students returning to college while providing them the job they need to stay enrolled.
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