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Fixing our Federal Work-Study system

The Federal Work-Study program is a form of financial aid awarded to students based on their financial need. This award is a subsidy that is distributed to employers to encourage them to hire students with the award over other applicants. The minutia of this distribution is handled through the employer, and as an employer, UMBC’s methods for distribution are a bit controversial.

This controversy stems from a complicated bureaucracy on campus. Students with work-study awards can get jobs on campus. There is a page on the financial aid website with a list of jobs as well as advertisements around campus. Students are then hired through these departments, which range from the AOK Library, to the academic program offices. However, these departments do not have direct access to the award.

Instead, the award is handled by the Financial Aid Office, which accepts reports from departments with work-study students on payroll and reimburses them afterward up to the full amount of the student’s award.

This becomes a problem when the managers and various departmental administrators try to hire and pay work-study students. Since they lack direct access to the funds awarded students, they have to treat them the same as every other employee in the office, thus destroying the incentive to give these students the jobs and hours, as well as the aid, they need.

It does not matter that they are receiving money after the fact because most departments have no way of accounting for that. A student who earns ten dollars an hour in a position with work study is only costing the department, say, five dollars an hour because the award covers much of their pay. However, they must be treated by the managers who schedule and hire them as costing ten dollars an hour because they are not allowed to account for that aid at the time of their work and pay.

Despite these complications, UMBC has a robust Federal Work-Study program. According to Shelly Kessler, a Senior Financial Aid Counselor and coordinator of the FWS awards distributed on campus, “UMBC receives approximately $350,000 each year to support this program … Generally, around 150 UMBC students are employed through FWS each year.”

“This administrative approach benefits both students and departments by providing the flexibility for the department to retain the student employee in their position should the student earn all their FWS award,” Kessler goes on, explaining why the current system exists.

“Because FWS is a financial aid award, the student cannot earn more FWS than they have been awarded,” she elaborates, “The approach we use does not require the department to terminate the student once their award is earned.”

Yet, many other universities seem to use a system wherein managers of work-study students can factor in their work-study status, but do not have to, when allotting hours. This allows them to get the full use out of the awards without leaving the students jobless upon the award running out. This fix could very well be implemented with a slight procedural change, the likes of which simply need the administrative effort to push through red tape.