Work-Study Is About Work and Study

09/19/2011 06:56 pm ET | Updated Nov 19, 2011

It is fair to say that the Federal Work-Study (FWS) program is the Rodney Dangerfield of financial aid programs. With a total budget in FY2010 of almost $1.2 billion, FWS is a significant investment of resources and a major element in the overall financial aid picture.

Yet Work-Study tends to be overlooked -- and sometimes disparaged -- in national policy discussions on how to cut costs while improving higher education outcomes. This under-appreciation of the role of FWS seems odd and increasingly out-of-touch with the reality of student needs in today's environment.

Judith Scott-Clayton penned a great perspective on this topic last week and we agree with many of her observations. As someone who has followed the FWS for some time now, I wanted to share some additional thoughts regarding the role of the program and important reforms worth consideration. Namely:

1. Work-study is about work and study. It operates directly at the interface between employment and education. Redesigning educational programs to bridge education and jobs more effectively is at the heart of almost all higher education policy debates. 2. Work-study has been shown to serve low-income, first-generation students and students of color effectively -- not only for financial reasons, but also because work-study promotes a unique engagement of students with their institutions that students may not normally receive. 3. Work-study can improve higher education productivity. Most people are familiar with the handful of "work colleges," such as Berea College and Warren Wilson College, in which student work is integral both to their education and to the support of the institution. Studies have shown that all kinds of institutions can strategically use student employment both to improve educational outcomes and reduce costs of institutional operations. Instead of diminishing work-study investments when students and institutions need them most, it's imperative for the Federal government to continue to fund this vital resource for student achievement. Building off Scott-Clayton's proposal for work-study reform, I propose we amend the system in the following ways:

1. Reframe FWS as a jobs and education program -- not just a financial aid program. The educational benefits of FWS need to receive much more attention, not just to build the case for continued or expanded funding, but to focus on the unique ability of FWS to connect education to jobs. To that end, employment in career-related internships and jobs should be included in the work-study program.
2. Begin to shift funds to competitive programs. As Scott-Clayton points out, FWS funds are currently distributed to institutions based on an outmoded and unfair statutory formula that does not reflect current needs or priorities. Instead, Congress should reallocate these funds for competitive grants that fund innovative programs, programs that target high-priority student populations, or training programs that offer workforce-relevant employment in high-demand fields.
3. Consider incentives for states to fund work-study programs. While states such as Washington and Minnesota have established their own work-study programs to complement FWS, most state work-study programs remain a low priority among higher education decision-makers. Incentive funding, such as a matching funds component, could encourage individual state initiatives.
4. Shift funding formulas to community colleges and other "new" institutions that serve high proportions of today's students. Scott-Clayton is accurate that FWS funds must be better allocated to reflect diversified paths to educational attainment. Because most community college students also work, being able to work on campus would offer tremendous benefits, and should make a substantial contribution to increasing community college completion rates.

Given the urgent need to align higher education more closely with job markets, and the proven effectiveness of work-study in promoting student success, Federal Work-Study remains a crucial component of our nation's current education system. The next step requires our government to amend the design of the program to reflect the needs of 21st century students.