Decades-old work-study program faces major cuts

Hannah Zwick put herself through college by working as a fundraiser for her university under the federal work-study program. She liked the job so much that she decided to pursue a career in education.

“That was a game changer for me,” said Zwick, 25, who now works for an education technology company along with studying toward a graduate degree. “Work-study opened up that opportunity that pretty much set me up on my career path.”

But future students may not be so lucky. The Trump administration’s 2018 budget seeks to cut funding for work-study nearly in half from $990 million to $500 million, leaving 300,000 students without access to the program. The U.S. Education Department says the change will make the program better targeted by focusing on undergraduate students who would benefit most. The reductions are part of a 13 percent funding cut for the department, which involves student aid and K-12 programs.

Since it was launched in 1964, work-study has enjoyed bipartisan support and proposed cuts were met with criticism from advocates, Democrats and some Republicans. Sen. Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who chairs the appropriations subcommittee dealing with education spending, warned this week that the reductions would be hard, if not impossible, to accept.

Higher ed support

“Broadly speaking, it’s going to make it more difficult for students and their parents to afford college,” said Daniel T. Madzelan, assistant vice president at the American Council on Education. “It’s pretty clear that this administration is cutting on the discretionary domestic side for fund increases on the defense side of the budget. It’s short-changing the future.”

Judith Scott-Clayton, associate professor of economics and education at Columbia University Teachers’ College, said work study has shown to have a positive effect on college persistence and completion, especially for low-income students, according to a recent study.

Under the program, the federal government gives money to colleges and universities, which covers up to 75 percent of the salaries of undergraduate and graduate students working on campus. Students typically work 10-15 hours per week for an average annual award of some $1,730, according to government figures. Typical jobs include community services and tutoring. The program has benefited more than 40 million students over the years.

Rohit Chopra, a senior fellow at the Consumer Federation of America, said another important goal of work-study is giving students professional experience and thus helping them find jobs after graduation.

“One way to address our student debt challenge is to make sure that borrowers are landing good jobs,” Chopra said. “And work-study may be a way for many students to gain valuable work experience.”

Scott-Clayton agrees, saying the jobs that students get on campus are often connected with their career plans and are more accommodating of their academic schedule compared to regular part-time work off-campus.

“It’s more flexible and more workable,” Scott-Clayton said. “And it’s giving them access to an experience.”

Inequitable flaw

But work-study has a flaw, experts say: its funding mechanism tends to benefit higher-income students attending elite private colleges at the expense of low-income students at public institutions. Due to an archaic formula, some money is distributed among established universities that have already been in the program for decades, while another part is divided among schools based on students’ financial need, which may benefit more expensive schools where tuition is higher, according to Justin Draeger, president of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Scott-Clayton said the program does need to be re-evaluated and overhauled to make it more equitable, but not cut.

“Cutting funding in half would be catastrophic for the functioning of work-study programs on campuses nationwide, yet would save the federal government very little money,” Scott Clayton said.

But Jason Delisle, a fellow at the conservative American Enterprise Institute, called work- study an outdated, opaque and poorly-targeted program. He said grants would benefit students more and students can find jobs off-campus.

“The universities are certainly free to hire them without the federal money for those jobs,” Delisle said. “I am guessing they are doing important jobs and the university should be able to hire them to do those jobs without the federal program.”

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