Financial aid is a mess. Between the FAFSA, CSS profiles, school-specific policies, and Pell Grants, it’s a tough process to negotiate. I’m not here to explain to you how all of that works, though—that’s already been done here. I’m here to talk about the work-study program, a federal initiative that pays qualifying students through on-campus jobs to cover a portion of their tuition. As opposed to individual university aid, work-study funds come straight from the government. But for low-income students at the nation’s best universities, work-study continues to place a divide between those in need of financial aid and those who aren’t.
At colleges with healthy endowments, there’s a solid argument to eliminate work-study altogether. (In fact, the University of Chicago already has.) Low-income students who attend prestigious colleges have already overcome significant hurdles to be accepted; they may have worked for years as high schoolers, come from under-served school systems, or been tasked with many responsibilities at home. Students from privileged families, on the other hand, have often been afforded more time to focus on school. The work-study program continues to emphasize this divide once at university. At institutions that promise to afford the same opportunities to all, low-income students are once again expected to devote time to earning an income, not school.
Last year, Harvard’s endowment (the largest in the nation) came in at a cool $36.4 billion. The university provides students with 100% of demonstrated need-based aid, but still makes use of federal work study as a student contribution to the total financial aid package. One could make an argument that the additional hours spent working are not a huge deal. But given that need-blind universities like Harvard aim to provide all students with an equal opportunity on campus, binding some students into employment seems counterintuitive. It’s hard to believe that Harvard couldn’t dig into its massive endowment in order to eliminate the need for underclassmen to work. The same goes for other schools, of course—anywhere receiving significant financial donations (and high tuition) may very well have the means to allow low-income students to forgo a job.
UChicago’s initiative is proof that reform in the world of college finances is possible. Financial aid isn’t just a way for low-income students to get an education. It’s an opportunity for them to explore new extracurriculars, engage with similarly motivated peers, and launch a successful entrance into the working world. But it is also, of course, a means of funding a world-class education that would otherwise be unobtainable. And forcing some students to devote time to a job when others don’t have to seems like a conflict that should be avoided whenever possible.
Of course, many students who have tuition covered by their school want to work in order to provide themselves with a disposable income or begin saving for their future after school. And by all means, students should be allowed to do so. But they should be able to work with no earnings cap simply because they want to. Taking on a job as a full time student is often necessary, but it shouldn’t be government-mandated.
Any private college that manages to cover the tuition of all students who demonstrate need may very well have the ability to eliminate work study. And while the government-sponsored program certainly offers benefits to students who can’t receive 100% demonstrated aid, it seems backwards at institutions with massive endowments. Education is a means toward equality and achievement, and continuing to place students on separate footings through mandatory work is a policy that does no good in the end. Decades ago, need-blind aid didn’t exist. But now that it does, universities should be open to reforming policy and fixing what doesn’t work in order to adapt to the needs of those who matter most: students.