I was a working learner. Working learners refer to students who need to work. In a 2015 report from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce, Carneval, Smith, Melton and Price found that approximately 40% of all undergraduates are working at least 30 hours per week. In a 2018 report by the ACT Center for Equity in Learning, that percentage had increased by 20%. Working learner is an umbrella term that includes students working in internships, cooperative education experiences, apprenticeships, practicums, and – like my undergraduate self – federal work-study appointments.  

In a 2018 New York Times Opinion piece, Rainseford Stauffer recounts the need to earn a paycheck while attending school because student loans and other needs-based or merit aid only went so far. The drive to work for many students, particularly low-income students stems not from a place of gaining experience but from a need to gain greater financial footing. The question universities and colleges must begin to answer given the steady growth of working learners, particularly those with limited financial means, is: can you address the need for employment without sacrificing student opportunity to engage with and integrate their academic experience? I believe that the genesis of that answer begins in the reimagining of the federal work-study program.

The main deciding factor for selecting my undergraduate institution was financial aid. I knew that I intended to attend graduate school and I knew that the path through undergraduate and graduate school was expensive. I received nearly a full scholarship, but this did not cover the cost of housing, food, books, and those other basic necessities needed to survive hundreds of miles away from home. As part of my financial aid packet I qualified for federal work study appointment. I was assigned to the library, the same placement many of my friends received, but I didn’t end up there, at least not permanently.

When I entered Lafayette College in the fall of 1998, I had hopes of becoming a sports psychologist. I had visions of being a “ghost whisperer” for athletes and one day traveling the country working with top athletes to achieve their personal best. I knew I needed to be a psychology major and somehow I also knew I needed more experience working with athletes. As a student at a small preparatory boarding school, I had spent the last three years working as a student athletic trainer. My boarding school required all students to be involved in sports. I played two sports and realized that my academic stamina did not translate to athletic ability or endurance no matter the effort. Luckily, my advisor was also the school trainer and offered me an opportunity to work with her. For three years I traveled with teams and attended practices with a massive bag containing first-aid equipment, a radio, and other medical essentials (i.e., ice). After school I would head to the gym/training room and prep athletes for their practices. This included taping ankles, shoulders, wrists, and supplying ice, lots and lots of ice. I became witness to the determination, the persistence through failure, and the defiance of injury many of my fellow student-athlete classmates displayed. I loved it and I wanted that level of engagement again. Having this high impact engaging opportunity and the accompanying skills fueled my walk down to the athletic training offices at Lafayette to inquire about volunteering.

It didn’t take long for the head trainer to see my experience and witness my superior ankle taping skills before offering to switch my work study placement from the library to his office as a student athletic trainer. This was perhaps the first time I had held a “good job” that was directly related to my future career aspirations. Until this point I had viewed employment as a means to earning money for expenses not experience. I worked as a student athletic trainer through three academic-athletic seasons, but by my sophomore year it was very clear to me that sports psychology was just not a fit for me. I realized that you should probably enjoy or at least understand sports to be effective in counseling athletes. The time spent working at the fields and practices (many of which happened despite rain or less than ideal temperatures) were also pulling away from my time to engage in other activities, such as my growing interests in volunteering in the community and my new position as a resident advisor. However, having the opportunity was invaluable in helping me discern what I didn’t want to do with my life; this is as much the goal for higher education as learning what you do want to do while navigating through this academic terrain. This was also a pivotal reframing moment for me – experiences in college, both curricular and co-curricular could be stepping stones in progressing my preparedness for life after school. Until this moment I had simply been focused on making it through the requirements for a degree, I had not thought of these four years as experience building or capital gaining.

Through my position as a resident advisor and then later head resident advisor, I gained room and board. This was the financial deep exhale that I needed. It also changed my eligibility for the federal work study program. In both the Obama and Trump administrations, the federal work study program has consistently seen its funding reduced or threatened. According to a piece written by Kelly Fields for the Education Writers Association in 2018, there are three main “complaints” against this 55-year-old program.

  1. The first is the inequitable distribution of funds across the many institutions that have federal work study programs. Fields contends that students with the highest needs (i.e., Pell grant recipients, students enrolled in community colleges – who are often historically underrepresented students [HURMS]) – do not actually receive the FWS opportunities needed to effectively “shift needles” for access.
  2. The second complaint is that the program does not work. This complaint is easily refuted; participation in FWS actively contributes to college retention, particularly for HURMS (Scott-Clayton & Zhou, 2017).
  3. Finally, the third complaint argues that the work is not meaningful. I will echo Field’s assertion that the meaningfulness of the work is dependent on the fit with the student’s aspirations, opportunities for growth, engagement, and ultimately learning. Working in the library would have been interesting for me but not nearly as impactful (i.e., meaningful) as working as a student athletic trainer because at the moment being a trainer aligned more with my career aspirations.

In a 2017 brief report, Scott-Clayton and Yang Zhou analyzed data on work study students. The researchers found that while there is a non-significant minor drop in GPA for first-year students enrolled in a FWS program, the overall degree completion rate is statistically better for these students in comparison to students working but not through FWS. Further, they posit that it is not the granting of FWS enrollment that motivates students to work but their need. Thus, these high need students will work and if not on campus, then off (Nazaire & Usher, 2015). Opportunities to work on campus have the potential to reduce conflicts with co-curricular and curricular programs, increase engagement, and if intentional in placement, become an entry point for HURMS to have a high impact experience. In reviewing Kuh’s (2008) list of high impact practices, a disaggregation of the working learner is reflected; internships, which could include practicums, co-ops, and apprenticeships, appear but there is no mention of student employment. As a first generation student from a family that was mostly classified as poor and then later upgraded to working-class, employment while at college and during the vacation breaks in between the semesters was a basic expectation and a critical backdrop for my collegiate experience. Given the steady number of students receiving financial aid, perhaps it is time to consider more intentionally how to make sure that student employment is not simply a means for financial survival but a vehicle for gaining experiential ground.


Buffie Longmire-Avital, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of African and African-American studies, is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Longmire-Avital’s CEL Scholar project focuses on diversity and inclusion in high-impact practices.

How to cite this post:

Longmire-Avital, Buffie. 2019, May 8. A High Impact Federal Work-Study Appointment. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://www.centerforengagedlearning.org/a-high-impact-federal-work-study-appointment/