After the Pratt Institute in New York City closed its campus in March due to the coronavirus pandemic, Emlyn Orr said she received an email from her supervisor at her Federal Work-Study job telling her not to report to her shifts as a photography dark room attendant.
The email didn't make clear whether Orr would continue receiving pay, but said students facing financial difficulty as a result of such work stoppages should contact the college's financial aid office. Orr, a junior, said she waited on payment -- her student account still shows an unpaid balance of $3,811-- that never came. She relied on the $165 biweekly pay to buy meals and supplies for her classes, which are being held remotely. She's now wonders where that money has gone.
“It feels kind of wrong to ask for money from anyone, but at the same time, this money was supposed to be budgeted,” Orr said. “Where is it?”
Federal Work-Study is a financial aid program funded and administered by the U.S. Department of Education, which provides about $1 billion in funding to help colleges provide students with paid jobs. It is designed to help needy students pay for costs associated with attending college. The program requires institutions to match up to 50 percent of the department's allotment in most cases, according to department officials.
The department has said colleges can continue to use federal funds to pay students who had work-study jobs before the pandemic, even if campus closures are preventing them from performing those jobs, said Megan Coval, vice president of policy and federal relations for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, or NASFAA.
These are “optional provisions,” and colleges and universities are following them in various ways, whether that’s paying student employees for the time they would have worked or providing partial payments or telework options, Bridget Schwartz, president of the National Student Employment Association, said in an email.
The University of Wisconsin at Madison, for example, said it will continue to pay students, even if they are no longer working in the jobs, the remaining amount of their work-study allotment through May 23, according to a message on the university’s website.
Students with work-study jobs have unmet financial needs to cover expenses associated with attending college, and some are recipients of federal Pell Grants, which is an indicator of low-income status, Coval said. Of the nearly 3,000 institutions in NASFAA’s membership, many were “pleased” to learn the Education Department would allow them to continue paying these students with federal funds, she said.
“That was one of the first questions that we were getting from our members -- can we keep paying these students,” Coval said.
But some institutions, such as Boston College, have determined only student employees approved by their supervisors to continue working will be paid, according to a university coronavirus information page. A junior who had a work-study job as an administrative assistant at Boston College said she had to assume she would not be paid through the rest of the year when her paycheck didn’t come and she didn't hear from the university or her supervisor about working remotely.
The student reached out to her financial aid adviser, who informed her that the college had depleted its federal funds allotted for work-study and decided not to use its own funds to pay students who weren't actually working. She said Boston College isn’t prioritizing work-study students, many of whom are in “dire situations,” even though the Education Department has made it an option for colleges to do so.
“Every school is going to face such a loss,” said the student, who asked to remain anonymous. “But I know that if they prioritized it, they could maybe find a way to afford it.”
John Mahoney, vice provost for enrollment management, said Boston College simply could not afford to keep paying students who aren't working remotely. He said the university usually uses its own funds to continue paying students once federal work-study funds are depleted around February or March. But the university now has a budget shortfall after refunding $25 million for room and board fees paid by students evacuated from campus as a result of the pandemic.
“This will be the first year since 1972 that we won’t have a balanced budget here at BC,” Mahoney said. “We simply did not have the funds in the budget to continue paying students that were not able to continue their jobs.”
Jolene Travis, executive director of public relations for Pratt, said in an email that the institute had also depleted its work-study funds from the government and would pay students remaining on the institute's payroll with institutional funds. But for students who worked in labs on campus, such as Orr, their work could not be continued remotely and would not be paid, Travis said.
“Departments were encouraged to identify work that students could accomplish remotely in order for Pratt to keep as many students employed as possible,” Travis said. “Unfortunately, some work couldn’t be transitioned.”
Travis noted that affected students were provided with emergency financial assistance based on individual circumstances. For example, Orr received a $500 emergency grant, which she said she "appreciated" but doesn't make up for the balance of the pay she will not be getting.
Mahoney said Boston College has also focused its institutional funds on emergency support for students who request help and demonstrate high need, including Pell recipients, who make up 14 percent of the university’s undergraduate population.
The Boston College junior no longer receiving her FWS pay said her financial situation is better than many others’ on campus -- both of her parents are still working and help pay her tuition -- but she is concerned for the FWS students who live off of their salaries. She said the university didn’t effectively communicate with students about what would happen to FWS jobs, which Mahoney called a “fair criticism.”
“It’s been difficult. The transparency would’ve been the best thing to have received during this time,” the student said. “To act like a large number of their students aren’t impacted by this, hundreds on campus, it’s been misaligned with their values.”
While emergency federal funds are being provided to colleges through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security, or CARES Act, they may only be used for student expenses related to college closures, such as plane tickets to travel home or technology to access remote education, Coval said. She said paying students wages they would’ve earned for the remainder of the semester is not considered a coronavirus-related expense.
“Even if the school wanted to do that with student funds, they would not be able to,” Coval said. “If they have a student who comes and says, ‘I can’t make my tuition payment because me or my parent lost their job,’ that’s maybe the result of the coronavirus, but not campus disruption.”
She also noted that the Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund created by the legislation is disruption-based, not necessarily need-based.
Still, the Education Department acknowledged in guidance it published March 5 that the financial impact of losing a work-study job “can be devastating” to students, especially if their colleges are conducting online instruction and students must continue to make tuition payments. For this reason, institutions “may continue” to pay FWS student employees “under certain limited circumstances,” including students whose place of employment has been shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic, the guidance said.
Institutions are only eligible for this provision if they continue to pay faculty and staff members and meet their “institutional wage share requirement,” which is the portion of work-study employee salaries paid for by colleges. Institutions with budget shortfalls that have laid off nonstudent employees would be ineligible based on the department's guidance, Coval said.
Institutions project annually how many students can be awarded FWS funds from the agency to make the allotment last, and colleges and universities themselves also have to provide a portion of the pay to student employees, Schwartz, of the National Student Employment Association, said. FWS funding is typically split between these two sources, but if a college depleted its FWS allotment before the coronavirus pandemic, as Boston College did, payment for FWS students would come entirely from institutional dollars for the remainder of their employment, Coval said.
Schwartz called it a “delicate balancing act” for institutions to employ as many students as possible through the program but not exceed the allotment.
“If schools exhaust their total allotment or students reach their award limit, the school would then have to pay all of the student's earnings if the student was to continue working,” Schwartz said. “While students are usually not aware of these behind-the-scenes funding sources, there is a cost to the college or university to employ FWS students.”