Education Secretary Betsy DeVos said Monday she will launch a pilot program allowing some colleges to use Federal Work-Study benefits for off-campus employment, including apprenticeships and clinical rotations.
The experiment delivers, if on a limited scale, on repeated proposals by the Trump administration to reform the work-study program and connect student aid more directly to careers.
It also marks DeVos’s first use of the department’s experimental sites authority, which allows the secretary to offer waivers to rules governing student aid programs in order to evaluate new policy ideas.
Her announcement Monday also noted that she would look to expand the number of colleges participating in the Second-Chance Pell experiment, which allows a limited number of incarcerated students to receive Pell Grants to attend college courses. A congressional ban on Pell Grants in prisons has been in place since 1994.
The work-study experiment, though, is the clearest reflection of the Trump administration’s ongoing priorities.
The federal government spends about $1 billion annually on the program, which supports student aid as a form of employment. Recent research has shown that the program has positive impacts on college completion, especially for low-income students. It may also help level the playing field in the professional world for disadvantaged students who can’t afford to take on unpaid internships.
But critics of work-study have said that the program is not well targeted to the students most in need of support and does little to ensure that jobs prepare them for careers after college. The government routes work-study funds directly to institutions using a funding formula that favors colleges based on past allocations. So money is skewed toward wealthy private colleges that have a high cost of attendance.
The Trump administration’s experiment doesn’t address funding allocations for work-study; that would require action from Congress. Instead, it would focus on helping colleges match job opportunities with students’ career goals, in large part by promoting more employment in the private sector. Those employment opportunities could include apprenticeships as well as clinical rotations and student teaching opportunities.
“For decades, the Federal Work-Study program has allowed students to support themselves while earning a college degree, but for too long, the majority of the work options students have had access to have been irrelevant to their chosen field of study,” said DeVos in a statement announcing the experiment. “That will change with this experimental site. We want all students to have access to relevant earn-and-learn experiences that will prepare them for future employment.”
The experiment would aim to measure the effectiveness of working more closely with private-sector employers and measure the impact of more flexible employment rules on student retention and completion and employment after graduation.
Almost 92 percent of Federal Work-Study funds go to on-campus employment, while another 8 percent goes to employment at local nonprofits. Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of funds go to support jobs for students at private-sector employers -- a share of total funds the Trump administration would like to see go up.
Judith Scott-Clayton, an associate professor of economics and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, said providing a direct pathway to careers has always been a mostly aspirational goal for the program.
“Everybody has always hoped for and had in their minds this vision of work-study as being a career-related thing,” she said. “In practice, most students don’t know what they want to do, and they don’t know what career relevant would look like yet.”
It’s also difficult for the federal government to regulate what career-relevant employment would mean to thousands of institutions across the country, she said.
But Scott-Clayton, whose research has examined the impact of work-study, said the program provides positive benefits to students even without a direct connection to a future career.
“They’re still getting exposed to professional work environments that could provide some really valuable soft skills,” she said. “Having a work-study job could be career relevant even if it’s not related to a student's major just by giving them that professional experience.”
Iris Palmer, a senior policy analyst at New America’s education policy program, said that the original rules for the work-study program included barriers to private-sector employment because the federal government didn’t want a student aid program to subsidize for-profit businesses. Yet keeping most jobs on campus hasn’t necessarily resulted in strong connections between student majors and careers, as recent reporting on Harvard University’s work-study program illustrated.
“But it doesn’t necessarily follow that this money being used for off-campus opportunities will be better aligned with a student’s course of study,” Palmer said.
Some students have also said that, even if their on-campus work-study jobs aren't career relevant, they provide the convenience of being near their classes and fellow students.
Kermit Kaleba, director of federal policy at the National Skills Coalition, said the group will watch closely to see how many colleges that currently receive work-study funds would attempt to expand partnerships with private-sector employers.
Expanding Second-Chance Pell
The Education Department’s new interest in exercising its experimental sites authority was underlined by the expansion of the Second-Chance Pell program. Sixty-four colleges are currently offering programs to incarcerated students receiving Pell Grants through the program. The experiment has awarded federal aid to 8,800 students in its first two academic years.
More than 200 colleges applied to the program in 2015, suggesting much broader interest in participating. The Education Department did not comment on the number of new institutions it’s seeking to add. But a press release from the department noted that adding more students and colleges would help efforts to evaluate the Second Chance program.
A Government Accountability Office report released in April found that the department hadn’t taken steps to adequately evaluate the experiment.