Federal work-study is a nearly 60-year-old program that aims to support low-income students by assisting them with nonacademic expenses such as food and transportation. Today, however, many work-study positions are menial jobs, like a tour guide or library assistant, that fail to offer students invaluable work experience or sufficient financial comfort.
Amid growing worries over student loan payment, forgiveness and postgraduate employment opportunities during the pandemic, the inefficiency of federal work-study jobs only exacerbates students’ current financial stress.
Federal work-study presents various issues for low-income students that the new administration must consider in light of rising student debt and financial insecurity. These include the burden of balancing a full academic course load with work and its negative impact on classroom success and ability to pursue extracurricular opportunities.
The federal work-study program allows students from low- and middle-income backgrounds to work on campus for a few hours each week starting at $7.25 per hour, the federal minimum wage. For instance, at Emory the program promises that work-study students can earn up to $2,500 each academic year to supplement housing and living expenses. The reality of the work-study program is far more grim. On average, students who participate in the program nationwide only receive $1,850 each year — $650 less than the $2,500 maximum — because universities can only offer work-study positions on a part-time basis.
To earn the full $2,500, students may volunteer to take extra shifts, a decision that often forces them to choose between their academics and basic needs. For instance, studies have shown that students who work more than 15 hours a week are likely to have a C grade average or lower, whereas those who work less than 15 hours a week are likely to have a B average or higher. Students should not need to trade off between financial stability and academic success — academic institutions should work to ensure the work-study program serves as a pipeline to finding work experience and employment.
Since low-income students need to use their earnings from the work-study program to cover essential costs of living, financial constraints sometimes force them to take on extra shifts. The financial difficulties disproportionately affect marginalized groups, causing them to overwork themselves: Black, Latinx, female and first-generation college students work the longest hours. In comparison, otherwise privileged students can prioritize their academics because they do not have to tack on a heavy work schedule and are also more likely to have connections to high-profile employers through their parents. Unlike low- or middle-income students, these more privileged students do not need to work long hours in work-study positions to network. Low-income students can devote less time to their studies compared to their privileged counterparts, which keeps them behind on their studies and perpetuates the cycle of inequality. The pandemic has only worsened low- and middle-income students’ experiences with the work-study program. Many have lost positions that provided them with experience and connections in their future careers.
In order to mitigate these barriers, work-study programs should directly aid students’ job prospects. Federal work-study is most beneficial for post-college employment when the jobs involved directly correlate with a student’s field of study, according to the Urban Institute. Most students, however, take positions that don’t correspond with their major, such as attending a library desk or cleaning gym equipment, and the jobs leave them more stressed and exhausted. This work does not offer low-income students the job-specific experience that is often necessary to find coveted internships and employment after graduation. Work-study programs that emphasize students’ career interests would help mitigate these costs.
As the nation faces student loan and unemployment crises that have been aggravated by the pandemic, low-income students should not have to give up employment opportunities just to meet basic needs. We urge the Biden administration to consider changing the focus of work-study from a university-centered task to job preparation in order to ensure that all students, regardless of financial need, can achieve academic and postgraduate success.
The above editorial represents the majority opinion of the Wheel’s Editorial Board. The Editorial Board is composed of Sahar Al-Gazzali, Brammhi Balarajan, Viviana Barreto, Rachel Broun, Jake Busch, Sara Khan, Sophia Ling, Martin Shane Li, Demetrios Mammas, Meredith McKelvey, Sara Perez, Ben Thomas, Leah Woldai, Lynnea Zhang and Yun Zhu.