By Steven Isaacson

When most people talk about financial aid, they focus on front-end programs like Pell Grants and student loans that help pay for tuition. But when asked about financial aid in general, a group of KIPP student alumni talked at length about the inadequacies of the federal work-study program, in particular.

The Federal Work Study (FWS) program was developed in the 1960s as a part of the Economic Opportunity Act. To help low-income college students with living expenses, FWS facilitated the creation of part-time jobs by subsidizing student pay to on-campus or off-campus employers.

Time management is extremely challenging, but it's easier if work-study is tied to academic studies.
Time management is extremely challenging- but its easier if work-study is tied to academic studies.


For many students, work study has been a crucial source of funds to help them pay for basic necessities beyond tuition and fees like books, travel expenses, rent, and groceries. The kicker though is students are only granted a certain amount of money which they can earn each semester through FWS, based on their household income and their college’s institutional allotment.

So if students run out of work-study funds prior to the end of the semester or see tuition and fees rise relative to their aid and work study packages, students have to scramble mid-semester to find money for basic necessities. They either pick up a second job, borrow bigger loans, or choose between their health and their studies.

What started out as a tool to help students, work-study, increasingly is viewed as a financial trap by many of the very students it was designed to help. That was my takeaway from a KIPP foundation panel event featuring alumni who are now in college from the 80,000-student strong network of public charter schools. Though “Life in College” was the subject of the discussion, the conversation quickly focused on the financial hardships that many low-income students face and specifically work-study.

The students are right that the primary policy problems with the Federal Work Study program are that the funds are neither sufficient nor well targeted. But beyond that is the program’s structure and underlying message: that you can work your way through school. You can. But you shouldn’t.

A little work-study is a good policy, but too much work-study, or worse, just general paid work disconnected from academic programs, is bad for students. It drives down important student outcomes, including likelihood of completion.

Research has found that students who work fewer than 15 hours per week learn to manage their time better. And students tend to perform better in classes when their work experience is related to their academic studies. A 1990 study found that there is a strong correlation between increased performance in school and work when the job was closely related to the student’s studies.

But there is a tipping point.  More than 15 hours a week of work-study on average negatively affects academic performance.  Students who have to work more hours and make the ultimate decision to enroll part-time instead of full-time see drastically lower completion rates.

In order for work-study to be optimally effective, students must receive greater financial support and have the support of their institutionsincluding tying paid work-study opportunities during school to academic programs and later job prospects.

What can be done?

First, we need to grow existing forms of grant aid to make college more affordable. The maximum Pell grant should be increased to offset living expenses that are often much larger than tuition and fees. While President Obama has doubled Pell grant funding nationwide, adding nearly three million new students to the Pell recipient pool and growing the maximum grant by approximately $1,000, grant aid is still inadequate.  A shocking number of students still struggle with homelessness and sustained access to food.

Second, we need to reduce the need for low-income students to work beyond 15 hours. FWS should be redesigned so that it more efficiently targets low-income students and provides them higher hourly wages. One-quarter of FWS students come from families with incomes over $80,000 and 1 in 10 recipients come from families making over $100,000. And some 40 percent of FWS funding goes to (often wealthy) private, nonprofit colleges that enroll small numbers of low-income students. FWS could be and should be better targeted.

Third, we need better quality work opportunities. According to the KIPP alumni students, work-study jobs are often remedial and don’t contribute towards academic advancement. Slinging hash for upper-income peers doesn’t promote better academic performance. Instead, FWS should be focused on helping students achieve career goals.

Young Invincibles has proposed, for example, that federal policymakers can and should provide financial incentives to encourage more partnerships between off-campus and for-profit employers and colleges, so that students gain more relevant work experience while still being in school.

Moving forward, progress must continue.

President Obama has done a tremendous job expanding the higher education paradigm to encompass issues beyond college access and affordability to now college quality, completion, and post-college outcomes. FWS supports all of these areas.

We should double down on work-study, but in a way that makes the program supplemental rather than fundamental, targeted as opposed to disperse, and balanced with academic responsibilities and interests. Let’s improve work-study for the students who need it the most, but do so in a way that doesn’t set them up to fail.