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Thursday, Feb. 29, 2024
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Opinion: Demystifying federal work-study: A program that fails to value low-income student education

Federal work-study is disguised as a program that benefits low-income students, but numbers say otherwise

From the Newsstands: This story appeared in The Eagle's December 2023 print edition. You can find the digital version here

The Department of Education defines federal work-study as a program that “encourages community service work and work related to the student’s course of study.” Yet, in my definition, the program is merely a facade of support that lacks real financial aid benefits.

Many students, especially those from first-generation backgrounds, may not be aware of how FWS works. When one fills out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as FAFSA, application, it asks if you want to receive aid through a work-study program. One out of every 10 full-time, first-year undergraduate students chooses to do so, according to Columbia University. FWS differs from other forms of financial aid because it is similar to a normal job with a paycheck. A student receives their paycheck on a biweekly basis instead of getting the full amount at once. Since many FWS jobs are on-campus, they can be more convenient for students as the program generates opportunities to work close to campus. Research also shows work-study can expose students to fields they are interested in and give them hands-on experience. 

FWS provides around $1 billion annually to about 600,000 students nationwide. When you break down the cost, the average amount a student receives for an academic year is $1,800. The most a student can receive varies by school but is usually in the $2,000 to $5,000 range. The average public university tuition per year for out-of-state students is $26,027 while at a private institution, like American University, the annual rate is $55,724

Federal work-study is one of the oldest federal programs to make higher education accessible to low-income populations. Yet, when one takes a look into the program’s benefits, the results are rather unremarkable.

For many low-income students, this program doesn’t offer real financial benefits. The Department of Education states that FWS is supposed to help with living expenses, yet students cannot deduct the reward amount from tuition and fees. Instead, the amount is paid through a check similar to other on-campus jobs, with the exception the total amount they earn is limited.

At American University, a student can receive up to $2,000 through work study depending on need. With D.C.’s hourly minimum wage of $17, a University student must work roughly 13 hours a month for an academic year, which is about nine months if they receive the full award. FWS hours are limited each week so students cannot work more than 20 hours. According to the University’s website, many FWS students tend to work 3-5 hours per week. Yet, an average student’s work hours in college exceed that number, with many working 20-34 hours, according to the American Association of University Professors. When it comes to low-income students, 48 percent work 15 to 35 hours and 26 percent exceed 35 hours, according to The Hechinger Report. I need not point out the significant discrepancy in the numbers above. 

The way the FWS program is designed does not allow students to work for enough hours to support themselves, leaving them forced to grapple with multiple jobs. When a FWS job puts lower-income students at such a disadvantage, how can they enjoy its benefits? 

An important thing to note is that getting a job is not a guarantee for FWS students. It is no different than applying for a normal job, except that there may be a smaller applicant pool. Also, students cannot hold two FWS positions at the same time. This rule would make sense if a FWS student worked 8-10 hours on average, but this is still the case if a work-study job doesn’t meet the hour limit: a student can’t make up for the rest of their hours with a second FWS job. This leads many students to look for additional jobs elsewhere. In these circumstances, the program only burdens students.

Calling FWS a financial aid program is a facade. While this isn’t specifically an AU problem, it speaks volumes about the government’s lack of action toward making higher education accessible. 

The program fails to meet student needs and makes college difficult to afford. We need financial aid practices in place that offer real educational opportunities. As the program itself needs much work, I urge peers with FWS to get a job outside of the program to receive higher financial benefits. 

Meliha Ural is a junior in the School of Public Affairs and School of Communication and a columnist for the Eagle. 

This article was edited by Jelinda Montes, Alexis Bernstein and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing by Isabelle Kravis and Luna Jinks.

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