Ten Miles Square

January/ February 2014 Patronage for Plutocrats

Why elite colleges with the fewest low-income students get the most work-study money.

By Jon Marcus

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.

Last year, the Senate Education Committee began a series of hearings that will continue this year on updating the whole financial aid system. Critics of the current system hope work-study reform is on the agenda. But they also expect that the colleges and universities that currently receive the bulk of work-study dollars, and benefit from the free and cut-rate student labor that money underwrites, will lobby forcefully against any changes. “I would be surprised if they didn’t,” says O’Sullivan of Young Invincibles. “Institutions certainly get a big benefit from having students work and having the federal government pay for it, so there’s an incentive to holding on to that money.”

Jon Marcus is a higher education editor at the Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet based at Teachers College, Columbia University.

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