The Federal Work Study program, which provides money to American colleges to hire students to do campus jobs, has long been a source of crucial spending money for students. It provides them with a reasonably convenient way to earn money while taking classes. Often they can even integrate the jobs with their studies, particular by working for professors or in academic departments where they also major.

But the program isn’t really working very well, according to a new paper by Rory O’Sullivan and Reid Setzer for the Young Invincibles. As they write:

At the 24 percent of institutions that responded to a question regarding job placement and students’ career interests, 47 percent of job placement were unrelated to students’ career interests. Some… 49 percent of job placements were unrelated to students academic programs. Most institutions were unable to determine whether FWS student worked in jobs related to their academic interests.

Basically, the problem is that students now need “work experience” to be qualified for reasonably good professional jobs. In theory work-study should be great for this, since it allows students to remain on campus and earn money in something related to what they want to study. But in practice work-study is usually divorced from students’ academic programs and interests so they often graduate from college without being able to demonstrate the work experience jobs demand. And so they often have to toil in unpaid (or underpaid) internships in order to try and gain the necessary resume points.

All of this is despite the fact that they may have already has been working on campus for four years. Another problem is that the colleges that get the most work-study money often have few poor students.

What to do? The report recommends several things. But they mostly come down to this: integrate work-study into career services:

1. Promoting FWS as a career-ready program through the location of Job Location Development programs
2. Creating a career Internships Program within FWS

The program basically now functions as a way to provide money for campus departments to get free labor. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the point of work-study is to help students. What students need is to get jobs when they graduate.

What not have students choose work-study programs as part of their academic and career planning?

One potential hurdle here is that not all students on campus qualify for federal work-study programs, but all students participate, at least on some level, in career services. The two programs can’t ever work precisely in tandem.

But work-study programs have changed dramatically over time to respond to the needs of society. In 1964, when it started, it was supposed to be largely devoted to community service and volunteer work. In time that became unfeasible. Today it looks like new changes are needed to work-study so it serves the students it’s supposed to help.

Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer