Strengthening the “Work” in the Federal Work-Study Program: A New Brief on Improving Access to Financial Aid and Career-Related Work Experience for Low-Income Students

By Katherine Saunders

With the increasingly high costs of postsecondary education (tuition, fees, and living expenses), more low-income students are relying on work to supplement their unmet financial needs—the "gap" between college costs and what students can pay on their own or with grant aid.

In 2012, 27 percent of undergraduate students were employed full-time and 39 percent were employed part time, and too often, the jobs they take are unrelated to their field of study. The Federal Work Study (FWS) program provides financial assistance for part-time employment to help needy students finance their education.  The FWS program currently serves 700,000 students and is jointly funded at just over $1 billion in federal and institutional funds. But today, the FWS program is underutilized, underfunded, and does not meet the needs of today’s students who want relevant work experience that aligns with their field of study and the flexibility to balance school and family.

In a new brief titled Strengthening the “Work” in Federal Work-Study: Improving Access to Financial Aid and Career-Related Work Experience for Low-Income and Post-Traditional Students, Elizabeth Kenefic highlights the key challenges of the current FWS program at meeting the needs of low-income and non-traditional students and provides recommendations to reform the program, specifically around career-focused job placements. The recommendations include:

  • Establishing better reporting of data on FWS placements and students,
  • Funding experiments to evaluate the success of using job-related FWS placements on student outcomes,
  • Fostering partnerships across institutional departments and local employers, and
  • Better targeting funds to low-income and non-traditional students to improve the program and bring it closer to its full potential as a vehicle to improve college affordability.

To learn more, read CLASP’s brief detailing how the full promise of the FWS program can be realized.