Cutting work-study program only punishes students in need

This opinion piece was first published in The Hill on 10/26/2017 

By: Jim Larimore, Chief Officer, ACT Center for Equity in Learning

A tenet of President Trump and his administration’s is that more jobs — good-paying jobs — are needed in America. That’s why it’s deeply troubling that the president’s budget axe will actually stop people from getting jobs, specifically young, bright ambitious people who have their eyes on the American dream.

The administration wants to cut roughly 300,000 college students (about half of current participants) from the federal work-study program. For decades the program has helped students from families with low and moderate incomes go to college by paying for part-time employment.

About 3,400 universities participate by hiring students (or having an eligible employer hire them). The employers kick in a quarter of the wages the feds don’t pay. On average, students make $1,730 a year and universities get valuable work completed.

This issue is personal to me because I worked my way through college many years ago as a resident assistant (although, technically, it was not a work-study job). Prior to that I had been working full time while taking a full load of courses — it was nearly impossible to balance it all.

Working on campus made a world of difference for me. It made life much more manageable because it was easier to blend my earn and learn schedules and gave me access to information and mentors. It also led me to shift my career focus to working with college students, which opened a whole new world of opportunities.

From my perspective, one of the best parts of the current work-study program is the fact that the students usually work about 15 hours or so a week. Fifteen is an important number to remember. That’s because our research found that working more than 15 hours a week while in college may do more harm than good for college students from underserved backgrounds (members of racial or ethnic minorities, first-generation college students or students from low-income families).

Our findings, an analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data of a nationally representative cohort of first-time freshmen over six years, found that trying to work more than 15 hours a week, while balancing college coursework contributes to “disparities in students’ academic and career success.” We also discovered that students who work fewer hours benefit from exactly the kind of arrangements work-federal study provides.

Other research has highlighted that students in the federal work-study program increase “the likelihood of completing a bachelor’s degree within six years.” But we acknowledge the federal work-study program isn’t a nirvana. We know that more working learners could participate. The program needs to be better calibrated so that it serves the most at-need students.

We reject this idea that the whole initiative is so troubled that we should eliminate half of it. The decision to cut it by half lacks the evidence-based approach to policymaking that Speaker Paul Ryan and others are advocating for in other sectors. In other words, there is no evidence that cutting work-study will make it better — it will just make it smaller.

It’s important that influential lawmakers are rejecting this idea. Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), the chairman of the subcommittee on education appropriations, said the proposed cuts will be hard, if not impossible, to make happen.

We say to President Trump: We stand with you in the desire to create more jobs. We also know that you think working and learning is a good thing. You talk all the time about how it was good to have your kids at your job sites. You even brought a 12-year-old to the White House to mow the grass.

If working and learning is good enough for the president’s children and a few lucky ones, it deserves to thrive for all and not be the victim of a shortsighted budget.