Work-Study Doesn’t Work

The debate about cleaning toilets at Harvard obscures a larger issue, Ryan Craig argues: Why don't we use federal dollars to incentivize work that actually matters?

April 26, 2019
 
 

“You’re the science expert. You have the political science degree.”
-- Representative Thomas Massie (R-Ky.) to former senator and secretary of state John Kerry

In an era of political lows, a recent exchange at a House committee hearing on global warming has been widely cited as the dumbest. Representative Massie attempted to undermine John Kerry’s credentials on the topic by asking him about his degree:

Massie: I think we should question your credentials today. Isn’t it true you have a science degree from Yale?
Kerry: Bachelor of arts degree.
Massie: Is it a political science degree?
Kerry: Yes, political science.
Massie: So how do you get a bachelor of arts, in a science?
Kerry: Well it’s a liberal arts education and degree. It’s a bachelor …
Massie: OK. So it’s not really science. So I think it’s somewhat appropriate that someone with a pseudo-science degree is here pushing pseudo-science in front of our committee today.

I must confess that watching a global warming denier who knows better -- Massie has a two engineering degrees from MIT and a dozen patents to his name -- attempt to bait our imperious, insufferable former secretary of state (while enormously capable, Kerry has steadily maintained this reputation since college) was pseudo-fun, like when two people you don’t particularly care for pick a fight.

Within days, it happened again, this time squarely in higher education. Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of higher education policy at Temple University and one of the most followed faculty on academic Twitter (and someone who once told me that aligning curricula with employer needs was not a goal she shared, and a questionable one at that), got into a delicious spat with Harvard. (Perhaps you’ve heard of it? The school where the fencing coach sold his house for nearly double its market value to the parent of a prospective student, who was subsequently admitted as a fencing recruit?)

As usual, Goldrick-Rab’s problem relates to employment. But this time, it was a Hechinger Report article about low-income students at elite colleges and an anecdote about a Harvard student who cleaned dorms 20 hours a week. Goldrick-Rab tweeted, “Low-income students at HARVARD working 20 hours a week in their first year of college cleaning goddamn dorms?? And we keep giving this wealthy place our public dollars why exactly? #RealCollege #DormCrew #STOP.”

The ensuring “fiery debate,” per Inside Higher Ed, was whether our wealthiest universities should qualify for federal work study (FWS) funding, whether they should be using that funding to have low-income students clean toilets and whether -- according to Goldrick-Rab -- these students were taking jobs away from “professional, unionized workers.”

While an interesting argument, Goldrick-Rab might have heeded her own advice to stop. Because these issues are tempests in teapots compared with an existential work-study question that Goldrick-Rab and her Harvard antagonists overlook, but which Inside Higher Ed astutely keyed in on: Why does FWS subsidize student employment that is completely disconnected from academic programs or career goals?

Each year at 3,400 colleges and universities, about 600,000 students participate in FWS and receive approximately $1.1 billion in wage subsidies from the federal government. The Department of Education says FWS “encourages community service work and work related to the student’s course of study.” Students apply through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, and, for qualified jobs, FWS dollars typically fund 75 percent of student wages. And earnings from FWS are factored out of FAFSA calculations.

Sounds pseudo-good, right? Well, keep in mind that funding flows to colleges and universities (instead of directly to students) on a “base guarantee” formula that benefits incumbent institutions (the longer your tenure, the more you get) and means that community colleges -- enrolling 40 percent of all students and a much higher percentage of those who most need a leg up -- receive only 15 percent of FWS dollars. Meanwhile, four-year institutions get lots of FWS funding to subsidize jobs for wealthier students; Seton Hall’s Robert Kelchen found that a quarter of FWS awards at private colleges went to non-Pell students.

More troubling is the program’s complete and utter failure to incentivize colleges and universities to reach out to real employers. In fact, FWS’s structure makes it much easier for schools to employ students to clean toilets on campus than to connect them with private-sector jobs.

The FWS handbook says on-campus jobs may involve “food service, cleaning, maintenance and security.” However, if you work off-campus for a “private for-profit employer … jobs must be relevant to your course of study.” The handbook goes on to helpfully suggest that “a student studying for a business administration degree could work in a bank handling customer transactions.” But there’s no such requirement for on-campus jobs.

Worse, while on-campus jobs receive a subsidy of 75 percent, “for off-campus FWS jobs with private for-profit organizations, the federal share of wages paid to students is limited to 50 percent.” And the topper: “A school may use no more than 25 percent of its total current year initial allocations to pay wages to students employed with private for-profit organizations.”

The result of these skewed rules is entirely predictable. According to the Department of Education, of the $1.085 billion spent on FWS during the 2016-17 school year, $996 million -- or 92 percent -- went to subsidizing on-campus jobs. Nearly all the rest went to off-campus jobs at not-for-profit or community service organizations. Of the $1.085 billion spend, only $726,208 -- or less than 0.1 percent -- helped students gain work experience at “private for-profit organizations,” aka the United States economy.

I get why policy makers would be concerned about “private for-profit organizations” exploiting subsidized student labor in jobs unrelated to a student’s program of study or career goals. I get it because FWS already builds in guardrails for funding work-study at for-profit colleges. The handbook is clear that for-profit schools may only receive federal funding to employ students in on-campus jobs “that are directly related to the FWS student’s training or education” and that are in “student services.” Jobs that “primarily benefit the school” are not student services -- e.g., facility maintenance, cleaning, purchasing, marketing, public relations or admissions.

If FWS can build in guardrails for for-profit colleges, why can’t it build in similar guardrails for the millions of for-profit companies where students will seek employment once they graduate? Make it clear that off-campus jobs must benefit students as much as (or more than) the employers receiving FWS subsidies.

Then not only make the subsidy equal to the on-campus subsidy, but remove the ridiculous 25 percent cap and require participating institutions to place a much higher percentage -- I humbly suggest a majority -- of students in real, off-campus jobs. If colleges can’t make that work, they shouldn’t receive FWS funds, and remaining dollars could be added to Pell to directly help needy students without requiring them to clean toilets.

There are two reasons this hasn’t happened yet. The first is that academic institutions are awful at establishing meaningful, sustained relationships with companies around the employment of students and graduates. Few employers have an incentive to engage at the requisite level with a single academic institution. Which is why it’s crazy that a billion-dollar federal program meant to advance students’ employment prospects is both crowding out private sector work and incentivizing colleges to ignore employers.

I have argued repeatedly that failure to devote real resources to engage with employers -- or more realistically, with intermediaries who maintain sustained commercial relationships with employers -- is the Achilles’ heel that could bring down American higher education as we know it. It turns out that the Orwellian-named Federal Work-Study program is an apt metonym for college’s wrongheaded approach to employment.

I was reminded of the second reason in reading last week’s alarming Chronicle op-ed “The University Is a Ticking Time Bomb.” The author, an English professor at Colby College, bemoans the cruel “adjunctification” of faculty, where contract faculty can teach eight courses and make as little as $25,000 per year. Adjuncts -- between one-third and two-thirds of faculty members, depending on the institution -- have “no claim to stable employment, health insurance, retirement benefits or even their own office.”

Who benefits from adjunctification? The same colleges and universities that also benefit from cheap graduate student instructors/teaching assistants, and the very same who benefit from undergraduate student labor subsidized at a rate of 75 percent by the federal work-study program. These unsustainable practices flow dollars from higher education’s have-nots to the haves -- tenured faculty and more well-paid administrators -- and free up funds for purposes unrelated to student outcomes.

FWS provides one more example why all Title IV-eligible colleges and universities should be treated with the same level of skepticism. It’s time to regulate all institutions as though they’re for-profit, because they sure act like they are. And anyone who says different is guilty of pseudo-science.

Bio

Ryan Craig is author of College Disrupted (2015) and A New U: Faster + Cheaper Alternatives to College (2018) and managing director of University Ventures.

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