Student advocates call for work-study overhaul

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Work-study is supposed to help poor students earn money to pay for college. But student advocates say the government program is failing to serve the low-income students it was designed to help.


In a report released Monday, the group "Young Invincibles" calls for an overhaul of the formula that determines how work-study aid is distributed.

"Historically, it's been the most important way to help students," Reid Setzer, a lead author of the report, told Fusion. "But the program could be helping many more."


Young Invincibles argues that the work-study program favors expensive colleges that enroll fewer low-income students. The group thinks the program should instead reward community colleges and other nontraditional schools that enroll a higher percentage of students who receive Pell Grants, federal subsidies for the neediest students.

For example, New York University, which enrolled 4,691 Pell Grant recipients (a fifth of the student body) in 2011-12, received more than $6 million in work-study funding. Meanwhile, Bluegrass Community and Technical College, where 7,061 students (half the student body) received Pell Grants, received only $3.5 million for its work-study program.

While New York University is more expensive to attend, Young Invincibles says the current work-study formula unfairly disadvantages students who attend less costly schools. Still, the group admits that distributing limited funds is not an easy thing to do, because "it’s kind of a zero-sum game," Setzer said.

But if it's a choice between funding the education of many students at an inexpensive community college or a few students at an expensive school, Young Invincibles says the choice is clear. And the group would like to make graduate students ineligible for work-study programs all together.


The group is also calling on schools to do a better job placing students in work-study jobs that match their career interests or majors. According to the group's report, nearly half of job placements were unrelated to students' career interests and courses of study, which becomes a disadvantage after graduation when they are applying for jobs against candidates who don't have to do a work-study and devoted time to unpaid internships.

A potential solution would be to use federal work-study funding to partially reimburse companies that offer internships related to students' interests, Young Invincibles says.


The government is funding the work-study program at the lowest rates since 1999, allocating $920 million in 2013-14, down $60 million from the previous year.

Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.

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