Making Student Work Matter

August 2, 2006

The federally supported work-study program has long existed to help students with financial need pay for their education, while also giving institutions a low-cost way to meet their need for workers.

But a growing number of institutions -- with Rhodes Colleges, in Tennessee, leading the pack -- say that the system often fails to provide students with meaningful work experiences that will contribute to their future career successes. And several educators believe that changes at the institutional level can allow colleges to save some dollars in terms of hiring new employees, thus reducing the need to increase tuition and other costs.

“It’s incredibly important for me that students have a full educational experience,” says William E. Troutt, president of Rhodes since 1999. “We want to provide them with the opportunity to earn a higher wage for their efforts -- providing funds for their higher education, while also controlling management costs." The president was chairman of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education, which was asked by Congress to examine financial issues in the 1990s.

Rhodes began carrying out Troutt’s ideology in 2004, when his institution began the Student Associate Program that allows undergraduates to compete for positions in departments across campus, earning upwards of $12 per hour for 10 to 15 hours of work each week. The program is funded in part through the institution, as well as through federal work-study monies and support from the Lumina Foundation for Education. Sixty students have participated to date in the steadily expanding program, with plans of eventually including 160 a year, about 10 percent of all Rhodes students.

They have participated in a range of jobs, such as helping faculty members and students learn to edit video in the college's technology department, cataloguing and indexing library offerings, and writing university press releases and communications.

In contrast, students who participate in the traditional work-study program at the college usually receive minimum wage, and do jobs such as copying, filing and cleaning the cafeteria. Officials at Rhodes say that these tasks and the money students receive for them suit some undergraduates just fine, but that many others are looking for opportunities that translate into real work experience.   

Rachel Stinson, a participant in the Student Associate Program -- who has also toiled in the work-study program -- has found the new program to be just what she was looking for. The junior, an English major, has worked in the communications department as a staff writer for the college’s alumni magazine. She writes several articles and short profiles each week, and hopes to one day be a journalist.

“It’s a lot of work,” she says, but compared to work study, it has been much more rewarding. “I think it’s preparing me for what a real job in the real world will be like. It’s just a huge step up from work-study.” In that capacity, she mainly answered phones.

“These students will have a mastery of very specific job functions,” says Troutt. “Rather than talking to a future employer in general terms, they can talk about the specific projects that they have helped carry out.”

Other institutions, including Kenyon College, in Ohio, and Southwestern University, in Texas, are pursuing similar paths and have talked to Rhodes officials to gather ideas for their own programs.

“When I first found out about the Rhodes program,” says Dan Temple, vice president for library and information services at Kenyon, “I thought it could be a perfect solution to ideas I’ve had for so long about better using students.” The college will begin taking on students as part of a pilot work internship program this fall.

“I believe that higher education can be made more cost effective through new ideas,” adds Temple. “Anything that allows tuition not to be raised is a good thing.”

Robert C. Paver, associate vice president for information technology services at Southwestern, notes that his institution has just completed its first year of a program modeled on the one at Rhodes. Twelve undergraduates worked for up to 15 hours each week in the library, as well as in the communications and technology departments. “We demand that they work like real employees, which student workers in the work-study program often don’t do,” says Paver. “A lot of times students feel like those jobs aren’t meaningful, so they just don’t put in the effort and everybody loses.”

Southwestern is currently looking for money to expand the program. “When you look at student labor, you find a [dearth] of funding,” says Paver. “We need to rock some people’s boats to get the funding to grow.” He says that financial aid and various other departments are among those that need rocking.

Robert L. Johnson, dean of information services at Rhodes, says that competition for the positions has been fierce among students and departments alike. He says that if a student isn’t finding his or her experience to be suitable in a certain department, the institution is more than willing to transfer them. He also notes that the college usually hires an upperclass student and a freshman or sophomore for each position, with the idea that the older student can advise the younger one and once he or she graduates, the underclass student can move into the mentor's higher responsibility position.

Many departments, Johnson says, have found that they can get more results by utilizing student participants in the program, since students aren’t paid benefits and receive less money than a full-time staffer would.

But Troutt says that students aren't really replacing any full-time workers because the college is already "thinly staffed" and couldn't afford to hire permanent employees for the positions that students are able to fill. For instance, the president says that that during his tenure, the library's size has nearly doubled, but the institution has been able to keep the same number of staff members because students are able to work jobs that resulted from the expansion.

Johnson says that some departments have been wary at first that students could fill the shoes of a full-time staffer. "But once they've worked with the students," he says, "and see how hard they work, their minds have quickly changed." He estimates that a job that would normally cost the institution $35,000 per year to fill with a new full-time staffer can now be filled with two student workers making a total of about $9,000 per year.

“We watch the departments closely to be sure they are using students as they proposed,” says Johnson. “They are too valuable a resource to not be given an appropriate assignment.” The institution is currently measuring retention and graduation rates among students in the program.

Troutt believes that similar programs could be an asset to a variety of institutions, especially those that are faced with funding challenges. “We’re just the first wave of folks doing this,” he says. “It should be very satisfying to find an opportunity where everybody wins.”

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