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Work: The Forgotten Resource

Maximizing student employment opportunities
University Business, May 2009

IN THE MEDIA, FINANCIAL aid coverage tends to focus on topics such as the tensions between funding merit scholarships versus need-based grants, the growth in student and parent borrowing, and the need to increase funding for Federal Pell Grants. Federal or state work-study programs get little focus.

During the recent debate over the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA), the Federal Work-Study (FWS) Program finally got noticed. Out of $98 billion in ARRA funds being managed by the Department of Education, $200 million is for FWS. The total earnings under that program in 2007-2008 were $1.2 billion, an amount virtually unchanged from a decade ago. Annually, approximately 800,000 students work under this program—earning, on average, just under $1,500. The new ARRA funds should enable approximately 130,000 more students to work part-time while in school.

'Our graduates enter their careers with a degree and four years of work experience.' -Sue Head, College of the Ozarks

Pennsylvania, Washington, Minnesota, and Indiana, to name a few, also sponsor student work programs. And many higher ed institutions provide on-campus employment opportunities beyond those funded by state and federal resources.

Handled thoughtfully and creatively, these jobs can provide benefits that go far beyond the dollars earned. For example, they offer students a chance to connect with people on campus. Retention research conducted at many schools finds the influence of $1,000 of on-campus employment on retention is much larger than an equivalent amount of grant support.

In addition, work opportunities can be educationally purposeful or career related, giving students chances to build skills and “marketability” that can help them gain full-time employment after graduation.

In fact, research conducted on work programs sponsored by the Dana Foundation and other philanthropies found that work programs have been particularly successful at meeting multiple goals and objectives. The following abbreviated excerpt from the book that emerged from that research, Shaping the College Experience Outside the Classroom (The University of Rochester Press, 1996) by Jim Scannell and Kathleen Simpson, lists seven goals that can be achieved by work programs:

— The development of individual self-worth and confidence due to the direct reward for the work ethic.

— The development of successful recruitment strategies involving guarantees of career-related, experiential opportunities.

— The creation of meaningful connections with alumni/ae.

— The opportunity to engage alumni.

— The chance to engage employers and let them sample the quality of a school’s “product” (currently enrolled students).

— The opportunity to involve faculty through undergraduate research assistantships while simultaneously advancing the faculty’s scholarly work.

— The chance for institutions to join with the community at large to address social, economic, and environmental problems and challenges.

— The chance to leverage donated funds.

Literally working your way through college is a thing of the past at most institutions, but there are still a handful of colleges at which students work rather than pay tuition. At the College of the Ozarks (Mo.), for example, full-time students work 15 hours a week during each semester and then two 40-hour weeks of their choosing when classes are not in session.

According to Sue Head, executive director of the college’s Keeter Center for Character Education, “Students who attend a work college have the opportunity to not only obtain a liberal arts education but also invaluable work experience at the same time. By ‘working their way’ through college, students invest in their own education and learn valuable skills, not the least of which is time management. Our graduates enter their careers with a degree and four years of work experience and are prepared to meet the demands of today’s competitive marketplace.”

Other institutions, such as Northeastern (Mass.), Drexel (Pa.), and Ketter (Mich.) universities have made career-related co-op and internship experiences part of their “brand.”

Barb Sosin, Kettering’s director of admissions, notes, “Every college and university is looking to distinguish itself from the others. ... We use our co-op brand to set ourselves apart from all the other top-ranked schools. Especially in this economy, we take advantage of cobranding Kettering University with 600 corporate employers.” Students can gain significant, relevant work experience, and their co-op earnings help to make their education affordable, she explains. “The financial benefits of our co-op program are impressive, and we use this to our advantage when selling affordability.”

The average freshman’s co-op earnings are $12,000, and students earn, on average, $40,000 to $65,000 over the course of the program. “Our current marketing campaign shows students wearing a black T-shirt that says, ‘Co-op is my stimulus package,’ ” Sosin adds.

Some institutions are sweetening merit scholarship offers by tying them to research opportunities or other paid internships. Opportunities to work with a faculty member on a research project as an undergraduate—and perhaps even jointly publish findings—can be very attractive to students thinking about graduate or professional school after they complete their undergraduate degree.

Successful work programs depend upon proper management. Without attention and investment, filling available on-campus jobs, and then achieving positive collateral benefits, is difficult.

Critical program elements include:

— An on-campus work “champion.” This person understands the potential of an effective student work program. But often, managing the student employment program is a small percentage of one financial aid staff member’s job. As a result, the emphasis is on simply posting jobs and monitoring earnings, rather than on developing exciting opportunities.

— A pay scale reflecting different levels of skills and experience. If everyone is paid minimum wage, regardless of position or the local market for part-time employees, the best students will find part-time jobs off campus, which could loosen rather than strengthen institutional ties.

— Opportunities for advancement in responsibility. Just as in the “real world” of work, students should be offered the chance to grow if they remain in one office for multiple years. For example, some admissions offices start student employees as file clerks, but then move them to more challenging (and fun) positions as tour guides and ultimately into leadership positions that might involve helping to select and train other student employees.

Just as in the "real world" of work, students should be offered opportunities for growth.

— Outreach to faculty and alumni. To be successful in today’s job market, graduates will need such opportunities on their resumés. But developing meaningful internships and research opportunities needs to be a “community” effort.

— A centralized source of information. It should include all opportunities, such as internships, part-time employment, and community service work. Often students must go to multiple offices (academic departments, the financial aid office, career services, student affairs, etc.) to learn of all of the ways they can gain experience and/or earn money as undergrads. Multiple offices may be involved in making these opportunities available, but students should be able to go to one source to see all options. Some institutions have created an online “one-stop shop” of current opportunities, which also serves as a place for students to research opportunities others have had.

— A campus ethos in which employers view themselves as mentors. The Dana Foundation research revealed that “an exciting, career-related, educationally purposeful responsibility without a good mentor has less value and significance than a more routine or even mundane set of responsibilities overseen and mentored by someone who cares.”

— Strong links between student employment and career services. Ideally, student employment is managed by the career services office. Combining the two functions helps get students into career services before the last semester of senior year. It also heightens awareness on campus that part-time work can be an important component of both career exploration and resumé building. Finally, it provides a single place for employment-related counseling and skill building. Even when these functions aren’t combined in one office, thought should be given to offering integrated workshops and services, which would encourage students to develop job search skills when seeking part-time employment and help translate their part-time experiences into resumé builders.

— Fundraising to support work at local nonprofits. They can offer educationally exciting opportunities but don’t usually have funds to offer part-time positions. Some of an institution’s Federal Work-Study funds could be used for community service positions off campus, but often there are more opportunities and student interest than can be funded in this way. Many donors like the opportunity of supporting a work program—particularly if the jobs are providing an important community service as well. Such opportunities enable donors to leverage their gift, not only providing resources for students to help them meet college expenses but also helping students build their skills and helping meet a community need.

When institutions pay attention to all of these elements, they often find this: Student work can become far more than just another form of financial aid.

Kathy Kurz and Jim Scannell are partners in the enrollment management consulting firm Scannell & Kurz. They can be reached via their website,