Credit: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Lila Scher has been working since she was fourteen. Growing up in St. Paul, Minnesota, she worked as a line cook at the state fair making tacos and nachos. In high school, she was a busser and runner at a brunch spot near her house. And when she got into college at George Washington University, in D.C., she knew she’d have to keep working. During her first semester she was constantly on the hunt for jobs. 

By the spring, she had landed one, handling IT requests from professors. Was it her dream job? No. Did she get yelled at by professors who were angry that their projector wasn’t working? Yes. Was she interested in IT? Not really. 

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But there were upsides. She could fit shifts in between her classes, and she didn’t have a commute. She liked her supervisor, who let her work more hours when she was tight on money, and who served as a reference when she applied to other jobs. Having the job helped her learn to manage her time, and she could sometimes get homework done during shifts between calls. Plus, she was getting her first professional office experience. The job required learning to speak with authority, even to professors. “I grew in that way quite a bit,” she said. 

That’s financial aid money at work. Scher’s on-campus job was a federal work study position. Her experience is fairly typical: more than half a million students across the country reshelve books in campus libraries, swipe IDs at the front desks of gyms, and answer phones in administrative offices as part of their financial aid package. The federal government kicks in a large portion of their wages. In one controversial instance, work study students at Harvard were employed to clean dorms. 

It’s one of the oldest federal aid programs, created in the mid-1960s with the goal of helping low-income students work their way through college. But it hasn’t kept pace with the changing economics of higher education. Today, most college students need to work during school whether they get work study or not. Meanwhile, unlike in the 1960s and ’70s, work study wages in 2019 do not even come close to covering tuition. But, like a baggy old sweater that’s now ironically hip, work study still suits the current higher ed landscape—just for different reasons. 

First, while work study will probably never go back to covering the cost of tuition on its own, students will always need reliable ways to earn money for living expenses, even if some form of tuition-free college is in our future. Second, there’s the ongoing quest to improve graduation rates; research shows that the convenience of work study helps students stay in school and graduate. Third, with some tweaks, the program is positioned to connect more students with high-quality work experiences that could lead to jobs after graduation. Plus, work study is a rare species in contemporary politics: it has the support of both Democrats and Republicans in Congress. 

But to capitalize on any of those strengths, lawmakers need to correct a glaring injustice baked into the core of the program: rich, expensive, elite private schools get a huge share of the money, but educate few of the low-income students who most need it. The community colleges and public four-year universities that do serve the less wealthy don’t get nearly as much funding per student. If Congress wants to help more low-income students complete college and land a good job when they finish, fixing work study is an obvious place to start.

Work study was created as part of Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty, enacted by Congress along with a raft of other antipoverty work programs. The stated goal was to “stimulate and promote the part-time employment of students” pursuing higher education “who are from low-income families” and need to earn money to go to school. Jobs were supposed to either relate to a student’s academic interests or serve the public. (Congress later required that a small portion of the money given to each school go to students doing community service.)

Today, the program seems even more necessary. The college student population looks much more like the country as a whole than it did in the early days of work study; there are far more low-income people who attend college and need a job to afford it. One in ten full-time students works more than thirty-five hours per week, and students today work about twice as much outside of school as students did in the ’70s. Yet even as tuition rates have blown through the roof in recent decades, the work study budget has sagged. In the ’70s, the average allotment per student could cover 90 percent of tuition. Now, the average award is about $1,550 per year, so small that out of all the students I talked to, none of them even thought of it as money for tuition. They used it for gas, pasta, laundry, subway cards, shampoo—stuff they needed for life.

But while work study no longer covers tuition, research shows that it helps with a different problem: graduation rates. More than 40 percent of students who started college in 2012 hadn’t earned a degree six years later. For students receiving Pell Grants from the government—a decent proxy for low-income students—the numbers are even worse. People who leave school without a degree are often trapped, with high-interest loans rising like water in a sealed chamber, locked out of the higher-earning, degree-requiring jobs that could offer an escape.

Work study can help. Judith Scott-Clayton, a professor of economics and education at Columbia University, has found that, for students who were planning to work during college no matter what, participation in work study is linked to higher graduation rates. That’s likely because work study students mostly get jobs on campus, so they are less likely to have a commute and more likely to have work that can be tailored to their class schedule. And Scott-Clayton suspects that simply being on campus for more hours per week may make students more likely to take advantage of institutional resources—from academic advising to the financial aid office—and get to know staff and other students. 

Today, most college students need to work during school whether they get work study or not. Meanwhile, unlike in the 1960s and ’70s, work study wages in 2019 do not even come close to covering tuition.

The effect is strongest for students attending public institutions, including community colleges: they are seven percentage points more likely to graduate if they do work study. That may sound modest, but it’s a substantial boost compared to other forms of aid. Grants, for example, improve a student’s odds by just two to three percentage points. “For a lot of students at public institutions,” Scott-Clayton said, “just getting access to a job that responds to their academic schedule, and where the employer has the student’s interests in mind, is a big benefit.” 

For many undergrads, work study provides a low-stakes way to take a first crack at a professional office environment, learn soft skills, and come away with a reference. For Scher, the IT help desk job was her first time working outside of the food service industry. “It was a very good first step of being like, ‘Oh, okay, this is how you behave in an office setting, this is how you sit at your desk,’ ” she said. Getting some administrative experience under her belt helped her get an internship the next year, and she says that even now that she’s graduated, her work study job is still on her resume. “Learning those things for the first time,” she said, with a supervisor “who understood I was a student first, and that this was maybe my first experience—that was great.”

An unfortunate thing happened when work study was created. In order to decide which schools got what share of the money, universities made their case to regional panels, and the results were not equitable. “The decisions we made were largely subjective,” wrote Robert Huff, who served on one of the panels and was Stanford’s first aid administrator. Schools had to submit data to prove how much money they needed, but it was hard to independently verify the information. A report from the Government Accountability Office found that aid officers were often airbrushing their numbers to support inflated requests. 

Ultimately, aid officers from expensive, private schools proved most adept at the game, and their institutions ended up with much of the pot at the expense of public universities and community colleges, which serve far more low-income students. In the 1980s, Congress sought to correct the imbalance by creating a “fair share” formula. But the formula would only apply to new funding for the program. Congress promised the existing winners that their allocations wouldn’t change greatly. 

Unfortunately, Congress hasn’t invested much new money in the program since then. In fact, the total inflation-adjusted budget for work study in 2016 was lower than it was in 1980. More than half of it still goes to schools that were grandfathered in. As a result, a high-income student at a private four-year college is more likely to get work study than a low-income student at a public four-year school. The way money is doled out is “divorced from any sort of useful metric you could think of,” said Reid Setzer, who analyzed the program while working at Young Invincibles, an organization that advances young people’s policy interests. 

Policy researchers have been calling on lawmakers to fix the distribution breakdown for decades. But attempts have always failed, thanks in part to successful lobbying efforts from university associations and prestigious schools. According to Greg Winter’s reporting for the New York Times, 

Such disparities have been a sore point among universities for years, leftovers from an era when federal money was given to colleges on an individual, almost negotiable basis. Now, for the first time in more than two decades, the nation’s financial aid officers are calling for the imbalances to be wiped away, replaced by a system that steers financial aid toward the universities that poor students actually attend, rather than those with the biggest reputations.

That was written in 2003. In the sixteen intervening years, little has changed. 

Today, community colleges get just over a third of the work study money that private, four-year institutions receive, despite educating far more low- and middle-income students. Scott-Clayton found that, in 2017, New York University received more work study money from the government than all twenty-four of the City University of New York’s public schools combined. Harvard, which has a nearly $40 billion endowment, got more than $3.5 million in work study funding in 2016. 

Mechanically, it’s a simple problem to fix. Congress would just need to rewrite the rules about how schools get money. The stumbling block has always been politics. But were Congress to attempt to rejigger the formula again, they’d be doing so in a different political climate. In the wake of public outrage over rich families bribing their way into prestigious schools by paying to inflate test scores or cutting deals with athletic coaches, elected officials may be more willing to take on the likes of Stanford and Yale. 

Even better than simply expanding the work study budget would be to retrofit it to address one of the biggest challenges in higher education today: placing students in well-paying jobs after they graduate.

Employers aren’t investing as much time and money into training new workers as they used to. That’s in part because expectations have changed, and fewer people start a job out of college planning to stay for twenty years and work their way up—a timeline that drove employers to invest in entry-level workers. Instead, employers now expect new hires to have gained professional skills while still in college. A survey by the Chronicle of Higher Education recently found that the first thing employers look for in recent graduates is internship experience. 

A high-income student at a private four-year college is more likely to get work study than a low-income student at a public four-year school. The way money is doled out is “divorced from any sort of useful metric you could think of,” said one expert.

That’s one reason why students of means, who can afford to take unpaid internships during college, have a leg up when it comes to getting hired after graduation. Meanwhile, as it exists right now, work study isn’t focused on helping students get experience in their field of interest. But it doesn’t have to be that way. Some colleges already facilitate internships for students as a way to bridge the gap between school and career. At Northeastern University, for example, students can participate in a “cooperative education program,” or co-op: six-month periods spent away from classes working full-time in jobs related to their career goals. In most cases, the employer pays the student’s wages. According to the school, half of Northeastern students who participate receive a job offer from one of their co-op employers, and more than 90 percent of students have a job or are enrolled in graduate school less than a year after graduating.

Northeastern has for years been pushing Congress and the Department of Education to change some of the rules around work study so that it can be applied to co-op jobs. (Currently it can only be used for part-time employment.) And in the past year, both the Trump administration and members of Congress have gotten behind the idea. In March, Democratic Senator and presidential candidate Kirsten Gillibrand cosponsored a bill with Republican Senator Pat Toomey that would allow students to use work study to take full-time jobs for short periods. 

The Department of Education appears receptive, too. Earlier this year it announced an experiment, slated to start in the fall, that will provide extra money to select schools to facilitate off-campus work experiences for work study students. Those students can take full-time internships, and the government will pay the same share of student wages whether they work at for-profit companies, nonprofits, or on-campus employers. If the department finds that participation boosts students’ chances of getting a job after graduating, those changes could be implemented on a national scale. 

But to do that, and to make sure work study reaches the students who could benefit most from it, Congress will have to give the program more money. Alarmingly, the Trump administration has recommended cutting work study’s budget by more than half, despite its own Education Department’s declared interest in using the program to connect students with high-quality work experiences. Recent proposals from congressional Democrats and Republicans have called for increasing the work study budget. But even Democratic proposals, which would more than double program spending by 2023, come up short. Reaching every Pell Grant student, to use a rough benchmark, would require increasing the current budget more than ninefold—and that’s before adding in extra money for schools to set up programs with off-campus employers, or raising the amount that students are paid. But work study is so small now—last year’s budget was just over $1 billion—that even with an increase of that order, it would still be trivial relative to overall higher education spending.

The fact that, Trump budget requests aside, there is broad consensus that work study needs more funding gives reason for hope. Unlike so many questions in contemporary politics, what to do about work study is not deeply polarizing. But what work study is may be even worse: part of a larger, complex bill that Congress has failed to act on for years. Its best chance for improvement comes through the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, the sprawling higher ed omnibus bill that governs everything from school accreditation to student loans. It’s typically updated every four to six years, but has languished since 2008, yet another victim of congressional dysfunction. 

Lamar Alexander, leading the charge to reauthorize the HEA as the chair of the Senate’s education committee, promised in a February New York Times op-ed to fix student aid within the next six months. But even if he and his colleagues make good on that pledge, the resulting law is likely to just nibble around the edges. At a time when students are graduating with enormous debt burdens—if they’re graduating at all—and struggling to make the leap to a good career, Congress has confined its thinking to incrementalism. It should recognize work study for the secret weapon that it is: a politically popular program that could make a major dent in the triple crisis of affordability, graduation rates, and the job pipeline. All it needs is some more ambition.

Grace Gedye

Grace Gedye is reporter for CalMatters. She was an editor at Washington Monthly from 2018 to 2021.