Work-study aid goes to the least needy

The neediest students are the least likely to get work-study jobs, writes Jon Marcus in the Washington Monthly. The $1.2 billion federal program uses a 50-year-old formula to distribute funds. Most of the money goes to the most expensive universities, which tend to enroll middle- and upper-middle-class students.

Greg Noll, a senior at Columbia University, balances his engineering major with a federally subsidized “work-study” job at the university’s fitness center, where he fills spray bottles, wipes sweat off the machines, and picks up towels for twenty hours a week. The $9-an-hour wage he’s paid is underwritten by the federal work-study program, which was launched in 1964 to support low-income students who would not otherwise be able to afford college.

. . . Noll’s family . . .  makes $140,000 a year, which he says, rightly, puts them squarely in the upper-middle class.

He uses the money for books, food — and going out with friends on weekends.

Only 43 percent of work-study students are needy enough to qualify for Pell Grants, say researchers at the Community College Research Center at Teachers College, Columbia.

Reformers say the first step would be changing the formula so that work-study funds flow to schools based on how many low-income students they enroll, not how much money they got last year. The second would be allocating more funds, especially for students nearing graduation, to career-focused paid internships off-campus—positions that frequently lead to offers of full-time employment. The third step would be expanding the size of the overall work-study program, perhaps by asking companies that would benefit from more paid internships to underwrite part of the cost.

The Senate Education Committee is holding hearings on updating the financial aid system. However, colleges and universities that receive most of the work-study dollars are expected to fight changes in the funding formula.