As educators and legislators try to combat a growing skills gap, Federal Work Study provides a unique opportunity to strike a balance between practical learning and effective financial aid. Through our research, it is evident that Student body presidents widely favor expanding FWS and allowing more students to participate. A recent Pew Research survey found that 50 percent of college students wish they had “gained more work experience” to better prepare for the job they want. Student leaders are concerned that students’ on-campus (and often off-campus) work experience did not match their career goals, or perspective employers’ needs. We talked to John Locke, Student Body President at University of Houston Downtown, about the work he’s doing to expand federal work study to include off-campus opportunities.
Name: John Locke
Campus: University of Houston-Downtown
Graduation Year: 2016
Student Population: 14,262
Describe the problems you see, and where off-campus work study jobs fit into the equation.
Higher education is very traditional and rigid. Work study gives students the equivalent of an internship while breaking down those barriers for students who can’t financially afford to take an unpaid internship. So that’s a key element that we need to consider, trying to create a level playing field. When you’re able to work off-campus while attending to school, you can bridge the divide between your job and the skills you learn there and what you are learning in the classroom. It’s also a service to students and taxpayers—[currently] you have these work study students sitting behind the library desk, and they’re often just doing homework. Work study provides so much opportunity to give someone a high impact learning experience outside of what students are only afforded in the classroom, and that’s a win-win. Students expand upon their skills, and taxpayers are funding a program that is creating a more talented future workforce.
What actions have you and your team been taking to realize these positions?
While I was in DC helping NCLC with their 2015 Students Speak Report release, I learned that work study does not have to be restricted to on-campus positions. That was enlightening! So I met with our President, the Provost, and the Dean of Students, and I talked about the findings in the paper, about federal student aid and job readiness. We’re big on community engagement at UHD, professors and faculty try to incorporate that into all our studies, regardless if its science or psychology or politics. And when I framed it in this way, in a way that connects our campus to our community, they were very interested and now we’re working to create more opportunities for students.
Have you had any success in moving more work study positions off campus?
To succeed, you need to have defined outcomes for work study. There should be a tangible learning experience that students gain in a work study job outside of just earning a paycheck. Our [university] president made me aware of a couple work study positions they had already created with different agencies [outside of UHD], and from there we negotiated the number of annual work study jobs we can create off campus. Right now we have 18-20 students placed with different nonprofits, and our community partners like Volunteer Houston connect us with different agencies across the cities that students can gain reliable experience from. Our goal is to have 30% of our work study students placed off-campus in the next year.
How would you advise other students to establish off-campus FWS positions, or increase the number that’s already available?
- Encourage the university to be engaged with the community. This builds connections with others who want to fix the community.
- Network! Get to know people and bridge the gap between the classroom and the community
- Schools love data. Pitch the fact that working at a library or the welcome desk does not give work experience. How do we define those outcomes?
- Set tangible, achievable goals for your work study programs. Show defined outcomes, and bring in more data to support it.