BERNSTEIN: Work-study woes

The University should modify the structure of work-study programs to protect low-income students’ academic experience

The University and many schools around the country offer work-study programs for students who qualify for financial aid. These programs fall somewhere in between pure grant financial aid and ever-controversial student loans; they allow students to work off some of the cost of their tuition through campus jobs, so they can (ideally) graduate with minimal or no debt. There are some general drawbacks to these programs — for one, the fact that earned income from these jobs is taxable — but for the most part work-studies are conceptually sound. They are a good way for students to make education affordable and simultaneously benefit the school, and they certainly are preferable to the potentially crippling financial burden of student loans.

But work-studies, despite their benefits, should not come without constraints. In the University’s case, the number of hours students can work per week should be reduced to alleviate some of the burden of simultaneously managing a job and school work. According to the Federal Work-Study Student Handbook, students at the University can work a maximum of 20 hours a week when class is in session, and typically they work at least 10 hours. Given the minimum class requirement of 12 credits per semester for full-time students — which many students elect to surpass — and the amount of time students need outside of class to complete homework and study, the typical week for a student enrolled in a work-study program is practically full.

Collegiate work can, by nature, be stressful for students. Add to that between 10 and 20 hours a week of work — even the most menial work — and that stress is likely to increase. According to a 2010 survey, the emotional health of college freshmen has consistently declined, resulting in only 52 percent of surveyed students rating their emotional health as “above average.” Of course, universities generally don’t want their students to be unhappy or mentally unhealthy for the students’ sake, but there are also quantitative consequences for poor emotional health. Stress and poor emotional health can have an impact on academic performance, as evidenced by a 2010 American College Health Association Survey in which a combined 51.8 percent of students cited anxiety, depression and stress as factors negatively affecting their academic performance, and 11.4 percent of students cited non-academic work specifically. Though perhaps work-study programs are not directly contributing to poor emotional health to as large a degree as other factors, their effects are not insignificant.

When students struggle academically either directly or indirectly because of the burden of paying for school, it defeats the very purpose of the work-study program. The intention behind University-sponsored financial programs is to help students fund their education, but when these programs become overbearing they diminish a student’s ability to attain that education.

The immediate issue with cutting down hours for work-study programs is that some students might need all the hours available to them to pay for their tuition. The best response to that issue would be to increase financial aid, but given the University’s recent cuts to the AccessUVA program, that is highly unlikely. The second-best response — perhaps equally unlikely, given the University’s track record on wages — would be to increase hourly wages for these jobs, many of which pay the federal minimum wage, or only slightly more.

A more realistic solution, however, would be to offer more jobs to students during vacation periods. The University currently offers a maximum of 40 hours per week for students in work-study programs when class is not in session, and without a full-time class schedule those hours are manageable. It would be unfortunate for students to have to double up on working during vacation time, but it is a better option than working so many hours that it detracts from the very purpose of attending this institution: to learn. Adjusting work-study hours is in the interest of a better academic experience and performance for low-income students, and that academic experience should be prioritized.

Dani Bernstein is a Senior Associate Opinion Editor for The Cavalier Daily. Her columns run Tuesdays.

Published March 25, 2014 in Opinion

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