Colleges refocus work-study programs to develop professional skills

As policymakers debate the future of the Federal Work Study (FWS) program, colleges are exploring new ways to attract and retain students who depend on the income they earn during the school year. A variety of programs are helping to better place students in work-study positions that match their personal goals, while teaching them skills that prepare them for professional job interviewing and workplace collaboration. Education Dive profiled the following schools’ efforts:

  • University of Texas at El Paso

    The University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP) prepares students for post-graduation life by putting them through a work-study hiring pipeline that mimics real-world conditions. Applicants must develop a resume, write their objectives, and interview for the job before going through onboarding and management processes. Once in their work-study jobs, students receive professional development training in communication and emotional intelligence.

    “We want to enhance their student employment experience, plus it helps them develop professional skills in the process,” says Christian Corrales, employer and community relations manager at UTEP.

  • Moraine Valley Community College

    Moraine Valley Community College (MVCC) in Illinois employs a similar model to UTEP, but goes a step further to recognize high student worker achievement with “Employee of the Year” awards. Pamela Payne, director of the Job Resource Center at MVCC, says that student employment is a sound investment for colleges because it enhances student employability with the added benefit of increasing their academic success and persistence in college.

    According to Payne, student employees average a 3.2 GPA, higher than the remaining student body average of 2.8. In addition, work-study students have a 92 percent retention rate, which is around 20 percent higher than the overall student body.

  • University of Iowa

    At the University of Iowa, the Guided Reflection on Work (GROW) program guides student workers and their supervisors through discussions about how the job connects to students’ interests and classwork. Since launching in 2009, 150 campuses have taken interest in the GROW model, including The Ohio State University, University of Wisconsin-Madison, and Elon University.

  • Valencia College

    At Valencia College in Orlando, Florida, students are employed by the student affairs department to work hands-on in new student orientation and health and wellness programming. These students-workers are trained in how to communicate and collaborate more effectively as a team.

    The approach reflects feedback the school has received from employers that “they want qualified applicants who are adept at soft skills that may not be addressed in the classroom but occur through experience and exposure to varying professional situations,” according to Director of Student Development Tracey Olsen-Oliver.

Education Design Lab helps schools standardize training

In order to quantify and systematize what “soft skills” look like, nonprofit organization Education Design Lab (EDL) creates toolkits to analyze student performance and reward new skills in collaboration, communication, and critical thinking with badges. 600 schools have signed up for the system, and 24 currently offer students the opportunity to earn badges.

EDL also works with HBCUs to help low-income students find connections and paid internship opportunities that are more accessible to students from families with more economic resources and connections.

Related: Billionaire Morehouse College donor isn’t done, launches program to help students from underrepresented groups land internships >

“Lower-income kids mostly work on the frontline of retail, food service or construction,” said Kathleen deLaski, founder and president of EDL. “We are committed to working in this space for equity reasons.”

Federal funding needed to increase off-campus work partnerships

As colleges grow more interested in partnering with local employers to offer experiential learning opportunities such as micro-internships, externships, and apprenticeships, they face federal funding obstacles to subsidizing off-campus work.

The U.S. Department of Education is considering a pilot program that would expand the possible use of funds to more businesses and nonprofits.

Alexa Wesley, a research and policy associate at the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators, said “now is a good time to shine a light on ways that paid campus employment can serve as a vehicle for administering activities known to help students persist, develop meaningful connections, and build career-readiness skills.”

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