Report: Rethink Federal Work-Study to emphasize skill-building

With a Higher Education Act (HEA) reauthorization potentially on the horizon, a new report urges policymakers to re-examine how the government distributes Federal Work-Study (FWS) funds and to ensure that the program focuses on relevant work experience to help students build skills.

The paper, published by the Urban Institute’s Center on Education and Data Policy, explores the FWS program’s goals and highlights opportunities to improve its reach and relevance. “In the face of increasing evidence about the importance of in-school work experience compatible with students’ educational programs, it is time to rethink the federal government’s strategy for supporting student employment,” writes report author Sandy Baum.

Unpacking the goals, benefits, and pitfalls of FWS

The government spends some $1 billion a year subsidizing colleges and universities to provide their students with work opportunities through the program. Despite a dearth of research on FWS, some evidence suggests that the program can have a positive impact on college completion for certain students, perhaps by reducing time away from campus or by increasing students’ integration into their college community.

However, the report says the program’s current funding allocation formula isn’t effective in routing FWS opportunities to students with the greatest need. Baum also questions FWS’s inclusion as a component of students’ financial aid packages, pointing out that “from the students’ perspective, it is clear that a job…is not equivalent to a grant.” Baum continues that “considering earnings as part of the student aid package makes it impossible for students to use these funds to meet their expected contribution or to augment their budgets beyond the bare-bones amounts allowed in the cost of attendance.”

Work experience, meanwhile, is a FWS benefit policymakers should seek to maximize in any HEA reauthorization, the report says, noting that students’ FWS roles don’t always help build their marketable skills. Baum concludes by recommending that any FWS overhaul should focus on three main goals:

  • Increasing employment opportunities for students, particularly in geographical locations where these jobs are scarce
  • Providing on-campus jobs for students
  • Providing part-time employment opportunities that strengthen marketable skills

“In today’s economy, where there is a strong focus on the role of relevant work experience in easing the transition from college to the workforce, there is good reason to focus on the nature of the jobs FWS provides and the marketable skills these jobs foster,” Baum writes.

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