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Congress Needs to Get to Work on Work Study

February 24, 2020

At a Glance

The federal work-study program is a valuable resource for many low-income students, but it’s not always providing the meaningful work experiences students need. JFF calls on policymakers to update the program to make it relevant for today’s students.

Contributors Practices & Centers Topics

Nearly 64 percent of today’s students work while attending college, and some are able to do so through the federal work-study program. But not all of the 3,400 institutions offering federal work-study job opportunities have held true to the original intent and purpose of the program, which was to provide educationally relevant work experiences to student participants. This needs to change.

Each year, the federal work-study program, which began in 1964, provides part-time jobs to nearly a half-million undergraduate and graduate students who have financial need. It’s a valuable resource for a subset of students to help them pay for college and living expenses. But updates to the program gave institutions greater flexibility in the extent to which they provide job opportunities related to students’ educational objectives, while also allowing them to offer more positions in community service. The subtle changes to the program over the years have resulted in institutions not making much of an effort to offer quality career-connected opportunities.

Changes to the program over the years have resulted in institutions not making much of an effort to offer quality career-connected opportunities.

Students today need as much academic and career-relevant preparation as they can get to be successful in today’s labor market. Outside of federal work-study engagements, postsecondary students have historically had limited opportunities to gain exposure to careers or work-based learning experiences related to their majors. This is because traditional programs of study at two- and four-year colleges do not include those types of experiences. Typically, students must seek such opportunities themselves, often through unpaid internships, which aren’t viable options for low-income students. These limitations continue despite the fact that employers expect new employees and prospective workers to have the skills and work experiences needed to do well in their jobs.

Young Adults in Registered Apprenticeship

Policymakers need to update the federal work-study program so that it 1) reaches more students who can benefit from the job opportunities and financial help it provides, 2) ensures that the “work” is linked to career-relevant experience, and 3) involves local employers that provide high-quality, work-based learning opportunities.

These updates are critical, because the federal work-study program is one of the only options available to low-income students who want to gain work and career exposure while engaging in academic coursework. Unfortunately, the typical federal work-study jobs available today are on-campus positions that do not offer students opportunities to connect with experts in their fields of study or gain the on-the-job experience they need to enter the workforce after they complete their degrees.

JFF supports the House Committee on Education and Labor in its efforts to provide college students with relevant work-based learning opportunities through the College Affordability Act.

This is why JFF supports the House Committee on Education and Labor in its efforts to provide college students with relevant work-based learning opportunities through the College Affordability Act (CAA)—the committee’s proposal for upgrading our nation’s higher education systems.

One component of the CAA would update the federal work-study program so that it more explicitly provides students with access to meaningful work-based learning opportunities that align with opportunities in their local and regional economies and complement their fields of study. The CAA would require educational institutions to use a portion of their federal work-study funds to compensate students employed in work-based learning positions offered through community service programs or local employers. It also updates the federal work-study funding formula to better direct resources to low-income students, which would result in more students with financial need gaining access to work-based learning opportunities.

Additionally, the CAA would create an initiative known as the Work-Based Learning Opportunities Pilot Grant Program that would allow eligible institutions to develop or expand work-based learning positions in high-demand occupations in partnership with high-demand employers. The pilot program would limit the amount of administrative work (i.e., filing, general office management, etc.) a student would have to do in a work-study job, while also encouraging participating employers to provide career coaching to their work-study students.

Recent discussions on work-study programs have extended beyond those taking place in Congress. Some states, including Missouri, are taking steps to implement or expand work-study programs to support students in paying for postsecondary education. State support for these programs is critical, because the federal work-study program alone does not reach all students in financial need or all of those who would benefit from a work-study program.

JFF believes that reforms and additional funding for federal and state work-study programs are essential for helping more students, particularly those from low-income backgrounds, get the opportunity to gain meaningful work experiences while in school. This is what’s needed to help secure economic mobility for all.

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