Student Voices: Federal Work-Study Provides Greater Support toward College Persistence and Career Entry

This is the second installment of our Student Voices series, which features a new student story every week in September. These powerful testimonials from actual students speak to the need for a comprehensive reform of the Higher Education Act that provides greater supports and well-structured financial aid to meet the changing needs of today’s students.

By Katherine Saunders

Low-income students confront numerous barriers to college completion, the foremost of which is their ability to pay for the ever-increasing cost of college. Even after grant aid, the lowest-income community college students can have unmet financial need (the balance remaining after the student’s contribution and grant aid) as high as $10,000 annually. This unmet need can drive students—a growing proportion of whom are financially independent and may have families of their own—to take on more work hours while in school. And while working part-time on-campus is associated with positive outcomes such as increased student engagement on campus and higher persistence rates, working more than 20 hours a week—which more than forty percent of students do—can threaten academic success and completion.

One form of federal aid that can provide low-income students with financial assistance, while enabling them to form connections to the labor market, is the federal work-study program (FWS). Nearly $1 billion in FWS funds are provided for on- or off-campus employment to students with financial need. Although the FWS program accounts for a small portion of federal financial aid, the impact of the aid can be magnified by institutional and employer contributions, which are required for many student placements. Furthermore, new research shows that receiving FWS funds can actually reduce hours worked and improve academic outcomes for students who would have had to work even without an FWS job.

In addition to providing additional financial aid for students, work-study jobs provide benefits that regular jobs can’t offer, such as schedule flexibility. Many students balance school, work, and family responsibilities and benefit from the flexible work-schedules offered through FWS that allow them to schedule shifts around their classes and other external obligations.

Moreover, FWS can be a valuable way for students to gain work experience that will launch them into their new careers once they graduate. While it’s common for higher-income students to gain work experience through unpaid internships, low-income students are seldom able to take these unpaid jobs because of financial responsibilities. Statutory requirements of the FWS program encourage career-related placements.  Unfortunately, in practice, these placements rarely occur.

After 30 years in the same company, Erika[1] was forced to resign from her position due to a lack of academic credentials.  Even though she had the work experience, she returned to college to obtain a degree in accounting. In addition to the Pell grant, Erika received FWS and worked 20 hours a week in food services and bookkeeping. While this work-study position provided her necessary income for educational expenses, it lacked a meaningful connection to her field of study.

For too many low-income community college students like Erika, their part-time jobs, whether FWS or off-campus, are not related to their career aspirations. The most recent National Study of the Operation of The Federal Work-Study Program found that “although federal regulations encourage institutions to provide an FWS student with a job that will complement his or her academic program or career interests, less than 40 percent of FWS students overall indicated that they worked in such jobs.”  According to the same survey, 42 percent of FWS students said they wanted more jobs related to their academic program or desired careers.

The current FWS program can benefit from reforms that better aligned job placement opportunities with a student’s career interests. If FWS placements were aligned to participants’ career interests, students like Erika could earn valuable income while also supporting their longer-term career goal. Ensuring low-income, working students are provided both financial aid and valuable work experience will be critical to future college completion and economic mobility. In the coming weeks, CLASP will be releasing a paper that further details proposed policy recommendations to improve career-related placements and maximize the use of FWS by low-income students.

[1] The name of the student interviewed has been changed to ensure confidentiality.