What Work-Study Looks Like During the Coronavirus

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Wednesday, July 29, 2020

STUDENTS WHO RELY ON part-time jobs funded by the federal work-study program to pay for college may see their financial aid options limited or rescinded this fall because of the coronavirus pandemic. Whether students can access work-study funding, which is a form of aid that requires them to work for wages paid in part by the U.S. Department of Education, will depend on the policy in place at the college they attend.

Work-study typically only accounts for a small piece of the pie when it comes to paying for college: In 2019-2020, 18% of families relied on work-study to pay for college, and the average aid amount among those families was $1,847, according to Sallie Mae's How America Pays for College 2020 study.

Still, even in a typical year, every dollar counts. As millions of Americans remain unemployed or working with reduced wages due to the economic impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, families may find it particularly difficult to afford the cost of college this year. Income from work-study is an essential part of the financial aid that makes college possible for many students, like Alex Fuselier, a junior at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts who says it may be challenging to take advantage of the program this fall because of the pandemic.

"It scares me to think that if I were to get a (work-study) job off campus that risks me being exposed to the coronavirus, then I could bring the virus back to campus and risk all of my peers as well as the faculty and staff being exposed," Fuselier, a low-income, first-generation college student, wrote in a direct message to U.S. News. "So it's kind of an unfortunate position where I need a job to cover my tuition, but I also worry that it's too high of a risk."

Colleges planning to hold in-person classes this fall may still include federal work-study in students' financial aid packages, often with an emphasis on options to work safely such as remote or in-person jobs that allows for safety measures like social distancing. But even those students may find themselves competing to get one of the limited on-campus jobs available this year and weighing the health risks that follow.

Meanwhile, colleges like Mount Holyoke and Dickinson College in Pennsylvania, for example, will provide grants to replace work-study aid for some students in cases where they are learning online and cannot work remotely. Other schools are issuing revised financial aid packages that rescind work-study aid entirely and replace it with larger student loans, says Ann Garcia, a certified financial planner and principal owner of Independent Progressive Advisors in Oregon who works with students and their families.

"It would be very unusual for a school to offer a financial aid award under normal circumstances and then change it to the detriment of the student after the fact," Garcia says, "but this year the vast majority of acceptances were sent out before the pandemic hit and before we had any idea fall would look like it does now," which may result in more limited aid options.

For example, the California State University system, one of the first major universities to announce an entirely online fall semester, will offer limited work-study to some students on a case-by-case basis, according to Dean Kulju, director of student financial aid services and programs at Cal State.

"It will depend on the nature of work/job. Is it something that the student can do remotely, versus in person?" Kulju wrote in an email. "It is also far more likely that a student who had work-study the prior year may get an award, as compared to a new student," he wrote, adding, "Given the limited work-study funds campuses have, it is not likely that students would be funded equal to their prior year in work-study."

The jobs available to students awarded work-study could be remote or in-person, like at the University of Houston, where Briget Jans, executive director of the office of scholarships and financial aid, is planning for students to continue taking advantage of the program in some form this fall.

"Anticipated positions include data entry clerks, research assistants, tutors, 'classroom' assistants, receptionists, campus recreation workers, office assistants, and marketing assistants. Positions are also available with our various community service partners across the city of Houston," Jans wrote in an email, adding that the university may consider turning work-study funds into grants if it's not feasible for students to work for the money.

While work-study policies and the availability of grants to replace those funds will vary by college, Garcia says students who can't use work-study financial aid for whatever reason should remember they have other options.

Students can borrow larger student loans, for example, and Garcia notes that they will benefit from lower-than-normal interest rates this year for new federal student loans. Other options include requesting an emergency relief grant from their institution or finding other forms of employment.

"The biggest thing for students to remember, and this is hard because they say, 'Oh my gosh, I lost aid,' is that there are many non-work-study jobs that will pay the same as a work-study job," Garcia says, noting they may vary by region. Families can also appeal for more financial aid if their financial circumstances have changed, she says.

By Emma Kerr