Ideas for Improving Federal Work-Study

July 20, 2016

By Paula Acevedo, Graduate Policy Assistant 

One might think that college students given the opportunity for a part-time job would be delighted to pursue it. But according to a recent report by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA), only about half of students awarded Federal Work-Study (FWS) accept their offers, despite the time they took to be considered when they filed the FAFSA. And although 70 to 80 percent of college students work, Congress allocates just under $1 billion annually for the program, providing enough funding for only 5 percent of working students to use FWS. 

Why would students not accept the award, and how can Congress better target the program? 

NASFAA explored these questions in June. Students who didn’t take FWS positions said they could earn more outside of work-study, they already had another job, or could get more experience elsewhere, because there’s a general perception that FWS positions are mostly clerical. Further, FWS jobs are also limited in number, a FWS award doesn’t guarantee a permanent job, the pay and hours may vary, the award is not guaranteed from year–to-year, and earnings are not applied directly to tuition. 

But there are misconceptions about what FWS jobs are like, due to a lack of information on the types of positions available. These jobs vary, with 80 percent of them being on campus in various academic departments, food service, maintenance, and research labs. At least 7 percent of FWS jobs on a given campus must be in community service and at least one student must be employed as a reading tutor or in a family literacy project. Unfortunately, 25 percent of schools have difficulty meeting these requirements, because the jobs may not exist or are limited in their community. 

Part of the problem is how underutilized and underfunded the program is. Given that the amount of funding limits the awards to only 5 percent of working students, not enough students who need and want a FWS position can get one. Two-thirds of the funding formula is based on a school’s prior-year allocation for FWS, and the rest is based on the number of students who need it -- giving an unfair advantage to schools with larger prior allocations (which are usually older, more selective  and have fewer low-income students), and not prioritizing the students who need it most. These students are more likely to attend newer institutions with a much larger proportion of Pell Grant recipients. 

FWS could be improved in a number of ways. Colleges should raise awareness of the program by promoting the benefits and variety of jobs available. Those hiring FWS employees should take into account the student’s educational and career goals, and serve as mentors. To encourage retention, FWS students should be paid more and their work should be expanded to offer a greater variety of experiences.

A possible solution for meeting the minimum 7-percent community service requirement: Use current FWS students as peer mentors for new FWS students and incoming freshmen. These peer mentors could also work in the communities that would benefit most from their helping students with the college-going process. 

To address the funding issue, NCAN recommends that Congress rewrite the campus-based aid allocation formula to provide allocations to institutions based on the proportion of Pell Grant recipients they enroll and graduate, not their length of time in the program.

While FWS may have some limitations, it also has great benefits for students. FWS can help reduce the overall student debt burden, and FWS earnings are not factored into the following year’s FAFSA calculation. It gives students the opportunity to learn how to balance work and school, often with flexible hours and empathetic supervisors. Students should file their FAFSA to be considered for these many benefits.

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