An Examination of the Federal Work-Study Program: Does it work and for whom?

By Jael Greene

The Center for Analysis of Postsecondary Education and Employment at Teacher’s College recently released a research brief examining the Federal Work-Study (FWS) program from data collected in 2016. The FWS program is one of the oldest federal programs that encourages college access for low-income students. The program provides up to 75 percent of the wages for student employees who work on campus for 10 to 15 hours each week and serves approximately 700,000 students per year- about one out of every 10 full-time first-year undergraduates.

Key findings from the brief include:

  • The average annual award was $2,270. The percentage of total published tuition and fees this covered varied depending on institute type.
    • The average annual award represented approximately 66 percent of tuition and fees at public two-year institutions, 24 percent of tuition and fees at public four-year institutions and 5 percent of tuition and fees at private non-profit four year institutions.
    • FWS participants were more likely to hold a job in their major field.
  • The FWS program was found to have mild positive effects on graduation rates and mild negative effects on grade point averages for first-year students.
    • Six-year completion rates for bachelor’s degree recipients with work study jobs increased by 3 percentage points.
    • The average grade point average of first-year work study participants declined by 0.002 GPA points.
  • Participation in the FWS program increased the likelihood of employment within six years of initial enrollment by 2 percentage points.
  • The report also examined the types of institutions that benefit from FWS program dollars.
    • Public two-year institutions received 20 percent of FWS funds even though they enrolled almost half of undergraduate students.
    • Private four-year institutions received 38 percent of FWS funds even though they enrolled only 14 percent of undergraduate students.
  • Due to the way that funds are distributed, as long as students have some unmet financial need they are eligible for FWS making it easier for students who attend high-cost schools to be eligible even if they have a high family income.
    • As a result, a student at a private four-year institution from the top quartile of the income distribution was more likely to receive FWS (15 percent) than a bottom quartile student at a public four-year institution (13 percent) and three times as likely to receive FWS as a bottom-quartile student at a community college (5 percent).