How will work-study work this year?

Colleges and universities are adjusting their approach to work-study aid this academic year, as the coronavirus pandemic continues to limit job opportunities and on-campus activities. According to U.S. News & World Report, students’ ability to receive Federal Work-Study funding, and how that aid is provided, often rests in the hands of their institution. 

Eighteen percent of families that responded to Sallie Mae’s How America Pays for College 2020 study said they depend on work-study to cover college costs. And with millions of Americans unemployed or experiencing wage reductions, a loss of work-study aid, which averaged $1,847 per year among the Sallie Mae respondents, would represent yet another hurdle. 

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

Some colleges and universities that are opting to hold in-person courses may be able to retain work-study in students’ financial aid packages, although job opportunities could be more limited this year. Many students, however, are weighing the costs of accepting in-person work-study jobs and being potentially exposed to the virus. 

“It scares me to think that if I were to get a [work-study] job off campus that risks me being exposed to the coronavirus,” Alex Fuselier, a junior and first-generation, low-income student at Massachusetts-based Mount Holyoke College told U.S. News. “So it’s kind of an unfortunate position where I need a job to cover my tuition, but I also worry that it’s too high of a risk.”

As a middle ground, various institutions are considering offering remote jobs. Others, such as Mount Holyoke and Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, are providing grants to replace lost work-study wages if students are unable to work remotely. Those without the resources to increase grants, meanwhile, may substitute federal student loans, which will have lower interest rates this year. 

Ann Garcia, principal owner of Independent Progressive Advisors in Oregon and a certified financial planner, consults with students and their families in navigating the costs of higher education. “It would be very unusual for a school to offer a financial aid award under normal circumstances and then change it to the detriment of the student after the fact, but this year the vast majority of acceptances were sent out before the pandemic hit and before we had any idea fall would look like it does now,” she said. 

Garcia says she is advising families to look into applying for emergency relief grants, appealing for additional financial aid if their circumstances have worsened, and seeking other non-work-study forms of employment. 

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