California program reshapes work-study to give underrepresented students a career boost

California has invested $500 million of its budget surplus to fund the Learning-Aligned Employment Program (LAEP), a new work-study approach that matches eligible college students from underrepresented backgrounds with jobs related to their academic or career interests, EdSource reports. The state funding, which officials say may provide job opportunities for around 100,000 students, was distributed in Fall 2022 to participating public colleges and universities based on their share of students receiving a federal Pell Grant, making community colleges one of the biggest beneficiaries of the program. Over 98% of public colleges and universities have already signed up to take part in LAEP.

Related: Colleges refocus work-study programs to develop professional skills >

Strengthening the connection between learning and work

Most undergraduates work part- or full-time while enrolled in college, according to 2015-16 data from the National Center for Education Statistics. However, many traditional work-study positions have little connection to students’ academic or career goals. LAEP seeks to change that by specifying that the program must offer employment related to a specific credential a student is pursuing, according to state guidelines. Those jobs include positions in medicine, technology, engineering, clean energy, education, and university research.

State funds will pay 100% of students’ wages for positions at University of California, California State University, or community college campuses, 90% of their salary at another public educational institution or a nonprofit, and up to half of student wages at for-profit employers. Only 5% of the program’s funds can be used to cover administrative costs.

To be eligible, students must be enrolled in college at least half-time, be a California resident, be permitted to work in the U.S., show satisfactory progress in a program leading to a degree or certificate, and demonstrate financial need. Priority will be given to eligible students from underrepresented backgrounds, including first-generation college students, youth currently or formerly in foster care, and students who are experiencing or at risk for homelessness. Priority will also be given to eligible science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) majors.

“This new approach to hiring low-income, first-generation college students to work in vital, growth industries provides students with valuable career opportunities, while also helping make those fields become more inclusive and diverse in the process,” Marlene Garcia, executive director of the California Student Aid Commission, tells EdSource.

“Students are hungry for this experience,” says Eloy Ortiz Oakley, president and CEO of the College Futures Foundation, an education consulting group based in California. “They want to see that their work in the classroom is connected to their employment.”

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