Congress is currently considering cutting funding for the campus-based Federal Work-Study Program that helps the most economically disadvantaged students pay for postsecondary education. Such action would be ill-advised. It would hurt not only deserving students but also cities and towns where college students supported by the program are working in an array of community service jobs.
Rather than cutting funds for Federal Work-Study, Congress should bolster the program’s financial support and expand its community service component. That would provide more educational benefits and career training to college students, and it would also strengthen local communities and schools by requiring more college students to work in jobs such as tutoring children in preschool, elementary school and middle school in reading and math.
Some 3,400 postsecondary institutions currently participate in the Federal Work-Study program. It provides crucial financial support for hundreds of thousands of full-time students with demonstrated financial need -- those from lower-income families. They work at a variety of jobs on and off campus while going to college, earning an hourly wage not less than the federal minimum wage. Participating colleges and universities are required to make the maximum effort in placing Federal Work-Study students in jobs that directly support their academic programs or career objectives.
By increasing funding for Federal Work-Study, Congress would be expanding access to higher education to students across the board. More financial support would give Congress the flexibility to adjust the funding formula for Work-Study, which currently provides less money to students attending public institutions than those going to private colleges.
Increasing support for Federal Work-Study has also surfaced as an issue on the presidential campaign trail, where some candidates have made increasing support for Federal Work-Study a key part of their plans to dramatically lower or even eliminate college tuition.
Participants in the Federal Work-Study program are more likely to graduate and get a job after college, as well, according to a new study by two researchers at the Community College Research Center (CCRC) at Columbia University’s Teachers College. But their research also showed a worrisome aspect of the work-study program. Participants are much more likely to take out loans during their first year of college. One reason that the researchers cited is that colleges typically package loans and work-study grants together, increasing the probability that a student will take out loans. Colleges should be more attentive to this issue and make sure that their neediest students can take advantage of Federal Work-Study without an undue loan burden.
We believe the community service component is one of the greatest values of Federal Work-Study. Beginning in the early 1990s, a key requirement of the Federal Work-Study program became that an institution spends at least 7 percent of its annual allocation on community service jobs. That’s a relatively low bar, especially considering the educational and community benefits and the challenging fiscal climate in our country. Many colleges -- including Oberlin College, where one of us works -- allocate a much higher percentage of their annual work-study funds to community service positions. This trend parallels growth in community engagement over all and signals that colleges are interested in becoming good citizens through meaningful contributions to their local areas. It results in a win-win situation, because well-run community service work-study programs provide students with ways to learn new skills and engage with diverse learning opportunities.
As at more than 65 other colleges and universities, Oberlin students’ community service jobs are organized through Bonner Scholars and Bonner Leader Programs, created in collaboration with the Corella and Bertram F. Bonner Foundation to give underrepresented and first-generation students “access to education and opportunity to serve.” The Bonner program provides a model for using Federal Work-Study funds to support students who make a sustained commitment to community service during college and help them develop as leaders and change agents in the local community and beyond.
The program works to identify community service jobs through consultation with local nonprofit, governmental and community-based organizations and to design jobs that will improve the quality of life for community residents -- particularly low-income people. In the past, some members of Congress were concerned that colleges and universities didn’t have the infrastructure to manage student community service positions. But now almost every campus in the country has an office or center for community engagement.
Expanding the community service component of the Federal Work-Study program is not a new idea. Harris L. Wofford, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania and president of Bryn Mawr College, is a longtime advocate for service learning and expanding the community service component of Federal Work-Study. In an article published in 1997 in the Journal of Public Service & Outreach, he provided a description of the benefits of Community Service Federal Work-Study that still applies today: “Moving work-study jobs off campus can be a win-win for all involved. Students benefit from the challenge of working on critical social issues and learning citizenship and problem-solving skills that will help them throughout life. Colleges benefit from improved relations with the surrounding community. And communities benefit from tapping the skills and energy of college students to help solve urgent local problems.”
Placing students in community service jobs fits especially well with the ethos and purpose of residential, liberal arts education. The Association of American Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) defines liberal education as an approach to learning that empowers students and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world -- science, culture and society -- as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest. A liberal education helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings. Studies by Northeastern University and the AAC&U found that most employers are looking those qualities in the college graduates they hire.
Having students develop their skills in a real-world setting while helping pay for their undergraduate education is the essence of Community Service Federal Work-Study, benefiting not just liberal arts students but all students in multiple ways. College students receive classroom teaching experience while working with schoolkids who are often from a more racially and economically diverse community than one finds on campus. They often develop useful career contacts with people who can provide references on future job applications. In short, community service jobs get students outside the “campus bubble.” By working with people who are not between 18 and 22 years of age and who are not students at a residential liberal arts college, they learn to see the community in which they are attending college from a different perspective.
In some instances, our Bonner students work throughout their four undergraduate years with the same community partners. Those partners include local schools and churches, early childhood centers, visual arts and musical organizations, local governments and businesses, retirement communities, and sustainability and sustainable agricultural initiatives.
Community partners say they appreciate having college students working with them. Many K-12 schoolteachers say they like having extra help in the classroom. They value having college students make a difference in a child’s life, and they like the creative energy and ideas that college students bring.
That’s a big footprint in any community. And a lot of bang for the taxpayers’ bucks. One of the statutory purposes of Federal Work-Study is “to encourage students receiving federal student financial assistance to participate in community service activities that will benefit the nation and engender in the students a sense of social responsibility and commitment to the community.”
That is exactly what Community Service Federal Work-Study does. It is a valuable program that has not received additional funding in years. Rather than chipping away at it, Congress should act to increase the community service requirement for the Federal Work-Study and help relieve students’ debt burden by providing more funding, not less.
Marvin Krislov is president of Oberlin College, and Robert Hackett is president of the Bonner Foundation.
Most previous efforts to introduce transparency to college financial aid have not resulted in their intended changes. But a new policy that the White House announced this past Sunday has been described as a game changer. And it is.
Beginning in 2016 for the 2017-18 academic year, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid will be available earlier -- in October rather than January -- and students will be able to use income information from tax returns completed two years before they apply rather than the previous year. Allowing students to use this so-called prior-prior year (PPY) income data for the FAFSA moves the financial aid process forward in unprecedented ways.
When I began my career in admissions 24 years ago, my standard spiel included the following line: “Don’t rule out any college because of its sticker price, because you have no idea how much any college will cost until you apply, get admitted, and hear about scholarships and financial aid.” That line is just as relevant today, despite the changing landscape for higher education and admissions.
It has not been the most reassuring statement for students, and it has assumed a leap of faith from many families that we’ve not yet earned. But it has represented the reality of the college search and selection process. That reality has opened colleges and universities up to criticism that we are being elusive about cost and price and have not been providing the transparency we should to close the deal on a four-year partnership with students and families.
It has been a problematic aspect of the college search and selection process, but one on which work has continued to be done, with varying levels of success, to introduce simplicity and clarity.
First, there was the U.S. Department of Education’s mandated Net Price Calculator (NPC). But unfortunately, the NPC has done nothing to address the wait-and-see approach to paying for college. Instead, the NPC simply added another layer of complication and estimation that does nothing to provide the kind of insight we had hoped to give students, simplify the process of applying for financial aid or help families coming to terms with final cost of an advanced degree. (The truth is that, for many colleges, the NPC added more administrative costs, which are passed along to students.)
The Department of Education and the Gates Foundation have also called for simplifying the FAFSA as the solution. But higher education and the financial aid world seem to have only lukewarm support for making the FAFSA easier, because it could be oversimplified to the point that it is no longer useful or accurate. And some people predict that such efforts will lead more colleges to use more customized institutional forms or adopt other standardized applications for financial aid like the College Board’s College Scholarship Service (CSS) Profile.
This spring the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators issued a report about implementing prior-prior year income data for the FAFSA and some of the implications. Are there concerns and uncertainties about it? Yes. Will this force colleges and universities to change? Yes. Will traditional admissions practices be impacted? Yes. Will other enrollment professionals and I have to get creative to respond to a new admissions calendar? Yes.
Yet, despite those uncertainties and concerns, PPY, a truly student-centered solution, is ultimately good for the college search and selection process and the feds should be commended for this forward-thinking simplification of the financial aid process. Most important, will it simplify processes for families and make our complex system a bit easier for them to navigate? Undoubtedly.
Some of the major benefits include:
PPY will allow students to file their FAFSA much earlier. Instead of waiting until Jan. 1, after college applications have mostly been submitted, the financial aid application process now will align more closely with timelines for the traditional application process. PPY relies on tax returns and information completed before the senior year, so aid awards can be given much earlier in the recruitment and admissions process, consequently providing students and their families with valuable information about cost earlier.
Some within higher education circles will complain that this new timeline may result in more “shopping” by families from institution to institution, but I can’t imagine it being any worse than it is already. Imagine being able to provide real-time financial aid information to a student when they are most excited about your college, rather than telling them they have to jump through a bunch of hoops and then wait weeks, or even months.
PPY will allow most students to use the IRS’s Data Retrieval Tool. PPY would be a dream come true for those who advocate for simplicity. The Data Retrieval Tool, which is one of more positive developments that we’ve seen to improve the financial aid process in recent years, could be used to complete a FAFSA more accurately and with greater ease.
Moreover, since the FAFSA and financial aid award time frames have not kept pace with that of the college search, using PPY would eliminate the estimating that inevitably leads to confusion, delays and other potential problems in the financial aid process. PPY would also be friendlier to family-owned businesses and those students with complicated tax situations, often requiring extensions beyond April 15 for tax filing -- which does not allow some families to complete accurate tax information during what is now known as financial aid season. And since universal college decision day is May 1, these families often have to make a college choice without all of the necessary information.
PPY will result in more students accessing aid for which they are eligible. Because PPY relies on existing tax information and a new FAFSA could be populated using the Data Retrieval Tool, it has the potential to be more inviting for students who are turned off by the perceived complexity of the FAFSA and therefore opt not to complete it. Why wouldn’t we want to make it easier for these students to apply for and actually receive aid for which they are eligible, instead of having them opt out and ultimately miss out?
These students are likely to take out student loans to pay for college or perhaps take a semester off to earn tuition money -- only never to return. PPY is about access and choice, which are two of the most important defining qualities of the U.S. higher education system. Everyone should be excited about the prospect of greater accessibility to a college degree and realistic choices for paying for it.
If our goals are to provide earlier information about cost, to simplify the application process and to increase access to higher education and to financial aid available, then PPY -- regardless of the potential complications and anxiety for public policy makers and higher education professionals -- is one of the most important changes to the financial aid process in a generation. And, for me, it’s a great development because it is a win for students.
Kent Barnds is vice president of enrollment, communications and planning at Augustana College.
Corinthian's court-approved liquidation plan will provide $4.3 million for former students, which they will use to press U.S. to grant more sweeping discharges for students of the defunct for-profit chain.