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MEDILL NEWS SERVICE SPECIAL REPORT
Federal Work-Study: Colleges Spend 12 percent on Community Service Jobs
By LISA SMITH and TAKASHI YOKOTA
MEDILL NEWS SERVICE

WASHINGTON - Although U.S. colleges and universities have spent, on average, more federal work-study financial aid on community service than is required by law, the nation's top universities fall below the national average. And colleges are quietly lobbying against a proposal that would require them to more than triple the legal minimum.

The top 20 colleges and universities as ranked by U.S. News and World Report allocate an average of 9.2 percent of work-study funds -- the federal aid paid to students for school-sponsored jobs -- to community service projects. But the national average is nearly 12 percent, according to government statistics for the 1999-2000 academic year, the most recent data available.

The top 20 schools, which represent fewer than 1 percent of schools receiving work-study money, received nearly 6 percent of the funds. The Education Department awarded $860 million to schools in the 1999-2000 school year; $101 million was spent on community service jobs. Schools get work-study money based largely on the amount they received the previous year; colleges that have been in the program the longest often get the most money.

The University of Notre Dame, Brown University, Dartmouth College and Princeton University spent the least money on work-study community service jobs among the top 20 schools. Massachusetts Institute of Technology did not even meet the 5 percent minimum requirement. Both Princeton and MIT disputed the figures, although MIT acknowledged not meeting the requirement.

They were not alone in failing to meet the spending requirement: 219 schools were below the legal minimum.

A number of schools cited the added administrative and other costs associated with placing students in off-campus jobs. And the Department of Education has no mechanism to make schools comply.

But, as part of a larger movement toward increased community service following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, some key members of Congress want to increase the spending requirement, which had been hiked to 7 percent effective last school year, and include enforcement measures.

Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Evan Bayh, D-Ind., and Reps. Harold Ford, D-Tenn., and Tom Osborne, R-Neb., proposed a bill to increase the requirement to 25 percent by 2010. The requirement provision is part of a larger Senate bill that would also expand the AmeriCorps program, which helps pay teachers and other community service workers, encourage other service opportunities.

Back to basics

The proposal comes 36 years after Congress passed the Higher Education Act, which provided colleges with money to pay students in financial need for working. In 1972, the law was changed to allow students to be paid for community service work. That goal faded through the years.

"The university administrators and lobbyists are saying, 'We want these jobs to help our budget, not to help our country or community,'" said former Sen. Harris Wofford, D-Pa., who sponsored the 5 percent requirement.

By the early 1990s, colleges were only spending a fraction of their work-study money on off-campus community service jobs, according to a report by the General Accounting Office -- the investigative arm of Congress - requested by Wofford.

Wofford's 5 percent requirement had started as a 50 percent proposal, but he compromised at the lower level to get a minimum established by Congress in 1993.

But the concept of community service or national service has gained momentum in the last few years,Last year, President Clinton and Secretary of State Colin Powell, who was head of the nonprofit America's Promise, sent letters to every university in the country, urging them to pour more work-study money in to community service.

Since Sept. 11, with patriotism high, politicians are highlighting community service and national service as ways to demonstrate national unity.

"I think this is the moment, when the patriotic iron is hot," Wofford said.

Compliance hurdles

But some question if the goal of 25 percent of work-study pay going to community service jobs is realistic. Even schools that consistently exceed the current 7 requirement may find it difficult to triple the percentage of work-study funds they allocate to community service over the next 10 years.

"I don't know if it's feasible or not," said Larry Zaglaniczny, of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, a lobbying group representing universities, because it's difficult for schools to meet the current requirement.

The Secretary of Education can waive a school's requirement if the school claims that meeting the requirement causes hardships for its students. During the 1999-2000 school year, 27 schools received waivers. Last year, the number grew to 58, according to a Senate aide.

"There's nothing we hate more than unused, unspent federal student aid funds because they're so desperately needed," said Becky Timmons, of the American Council on Education, a lobbying group.

Notre Dame, which over the past seven years has averaged below 5 percent in community service work-study spending requirement, has received exemptions. Because the school has so many students participating in volunteer programs not related to work-study, administrators have had difficulty finding local organizations that could afford to pay the 25 percent matching funds for work study students' salaries, according to Joe Russo, the school's financial aid director. "Paid volunteerism is more costly than volunteerism," Russo said.

However, supporters argue that work-study students may be more reliable than typical volunteers in performing long-term, one-on-one assistance like tutoring or mentoring. To receive their aid, work-study students must commit to an organization for a specific amount of time and work consistent hours, unlike volunteers who are more likely to come in when they have time.

"What's great about work-study students is that I know that I have a semester-long commitment. I have a much higher likelihood that that person is going to stick with that experience," said Karen Baker, a former top official of the Corporation for National Service, an agency within the Education Department. "Otherwise I've got to rely on your good heart."

There is no typical work-study job that fulfills the definition of community service. Positions range from tutoring children to shelving books at the public library.

Work-study jobs that aren't community service often involve working at the school library, bookstore and cafeteria, or doing administrative or research work. It is easier for students to work shorter shifts and schedule their work hours around classtime at these jobs than at off-campus jobs. Schools save money by using students whose salaries are partially subsidized instead of full-time employees. If more work-study students were required to do community service, schools would have to hire more employees. They also would have to spend more time developing relationships with local organizations and training students to undertake service jobs, particularly positions that involve tutoring.

Another institutional obstacle to community service is a school's tradition. Because many of the top universities are research institutions or emphasize information technology, computer science and law rather than social work or education, their students may be less likely to choose community service for work-study jobs and instead opt for positions that relate to their majors.

Such is the case at MIT, where only 1.9 percent of work-study money was spent on community service. An MIT staff member said most work-study jobs are research-oriented. At the other end of the scale, another top university, Stanford, spent more than 22 percent on community service. But unlike MIT, Stanford has large schools of humanities and social sciences.

A college's location also may affect how much work-study funding it can designate for community service, financial aid administrators said. Universities located in rural areas "have to scramble" to meet the current requirement because public transportation is scarce and service organizations are small, Zaglaniczny said. Montana State University in Bozeman designated about 10 percent for community service in the 1999-2000 school year, but the school's financial aid administrator said finding more student jobs in the community of 9,000 people would be difficult because there are so few service agencies.

But critics counter that rural school and public health agencies always need help.

Work study and community service: Two separate premises? McCain and Bayh promise that universities' commitment to work-study community service will get more attention in Congress next year as they debate their proposal.

They and others will argue that work-study was created with the intent of promoting public service while helping students finance their education. But many schools will counter that work-study is meant to help out students who need money to pay for college, not to advance political agendas. "[The Higher Education Act] had nothing to do with community service," said Russo of Notre Dame, although those words do appear in the original act.

But Barry Checkoway, a professor of social work at the University of Michigan, said universities were created in part to "prepare young people for active participation in a democracy."

"If you were to bring national service through the doors of higher education," he said, "you'd have a chance to establish it in and entirely new, and I think more powerful, way." (Joshua Green of The Washington Monthly magazine contributed to this report.)


   


Graphics
Graphic of Best/Worst Schools

Graphic of Top 20 U.S. Schools and Their work-study percentage spent on community service

Graphic of Best States

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  2001 Medill News Service, Northwestern University