Opinion | Work-study is unrealistic for busy students with bills to pay

By Jessica Snyder, For The Pitt News

My journey as a first generation college student at Pitt started almost three years ago. After going to my middle school’s administrative office to get a work permit and square away the legal logistics, I started my first job at 14 years old. I started volunteering two years before that, and since then I have rarely been without a job.

In order to cover the costs of college, I knew that it was practically mandatory for me to have a job. So, when the federal government offered me the chance to work in order to pay off my college tuition, it looked like an opportunity that I couldn’t refuse.

While the maximum amount of money awarded by the Federal Work-Study Program can vary, I could earn $3,000 a year through the program. This measly amount accounts for less than 16% of Pitt’s total tuition for the year, and even then, not all students are eligible to receive work-study aid. In order to qualify for FWS, a student must display financial need.

College isn’t free, and I’m not expecting it to be, but the FWS Program is simply not worth it in the long run if students want to make actual money. Classes are a student’s main priority, so sometimes there might not even be time to participate in the program. Even when there is time to participate in work study, students are met with shallow awards earned through low wages.

In general, work-study program earnings rarely exceed $5,000 in an academic year at any institution. Once again, this covers less than a quarter of most universities’ annual tuition costs. FWS awards are low in comparison to tuition and even lower when compared to housing costs. Personally, the rent for my apartment is $735 a month and on-campus housing options don’t deviate much from this.

FWS award amounts are extremely low and consequently look easy to achieve, but in my time as a student worker from November 2019 to April 2020, I did not earn all of the $3,000 the program allotted me. For context, I worked for eight dollars an hour and about 15 hours a week. This is not out of the ordinary though, as most FWS jobs are entry level and don’t allow students to work more than 20 hours a week.

FWS funds come in the form of a regular paycheck, so technically you can do whatever you want with them. But on a financial aid award worksheet, the entire amount of the FWS award is counted as aid but not credited to your bill, as you haven’t earned totality of your given wages yet. In this way, the University does a good job of strongly encouraging student workers to put all of their meager wages towards tuition.

Students can apply for many FWS jobs through Pitt’s Talent Center, but this repetitive application process is unpaid and has little payoff since most entry-level wages rarely top double digits. If you come to Pitt undecided on your major there are even fewer options available to you, as most employers want students in related majors. Performing a job search is rigorous, FWS related or not. To engage in such a search for very little reward barely seems worth the trouble.

The FWS Program is specifically designed so that college students don’t feel stressed out by having a job, but sometimes this just isn’t enough. In fact, only 43% of full-time undergraduate students in the United States were employed in 2018. In a way, being a full-time college student is a job in and of itself. Many of my friends don’t work during school because of this fact and, to be completely honest, I don’t blame them. 

The FWS Program provides an unmatched opportunity to receive work experience within your field — I’ll give it that. Students are compensated for their time, so it beats an unpaid internship. For all other purposes though, I don’t think that the FWS Program is worth the time and effort that students must put into it.

The FWS Program puts a limit on how much money a student worker can make, strengthening the case for just getting a regular job. In fact, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, many companies are offering bonuses in order to mitigate the effects of the nationwide labor shortage.

In short, the FWS Program needs reform. Student workers are essential on any and all university campuses, whether working in bookstores or recreation centers. It would be foolish to throw out the entire system, but as of right now it isn’t benefiting the students that most need it. If students who want a job can get one that pays more and doesn’t limit how much you can earn practically anywhere in Pittsburgh, the FWS program won’t be able to thrive. This goes for all universities as well, considering this is a federal program.

Pitt administrators should be looking into keeping tuition costs from rising, as well as raising the wages of student workers. I also don’t think it would hurt to make the FWS Program available to everyone, those with greater financial need taking priority, of course. Furthermore, the concept of maximum earnings in the FWS Program should be abolished completely, as it encourages students to look for employment elsewhere where maximum earnings won’t be an issue.

Currently, the FWS Program is unproductive for students and the University alike. With reform, work-study jobs will be able to bring the Pitt community together. 

Jessica Snyder primarily writes about controversy in art and politics. Write to her at [email protected].