While writing our series last year on financial aid at Amherst, my co-columnist and I racked our brains to identify solutions to the problems we found. After going through my own financial aid award, I stumbled upon something that I hadn’t noticed before: federal work-study acts as aid.
Let’s talk about what that means in the context of Amherst’s financial aid system. The way that aid here works is pretty simple, if you ignore the complicated calculations behind the scenes. First, a student fills out the FAFSA, the CSS Profile, and the various other parts of their financial aid application. Then, the college uses the information from those documents to determine that student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) — the amount of money that the college thinks the student and their family can pay.
After that, it just takes some simple math — though maybe not simple enough for my arithmetically-challenged co-columnist — to figure out the student’s aid awards. The college takes its tuition, room and board, fees, and other expenses (last year, about $80,960 all together), subtracts the student’s EFC, and gives the rest to them as aid. This ensures, supposedly, that families only ever pay what they can afford. The college’s aid plus the EFC should cover all costs.
Most of that aid is grant aid. But since work-study allowances count as aid, the college can use them to reduce the grant aid that it provides a student. The problem is that students have to work for that “aid.”
This year, I got $2,200 in federal work-study from the college (under the federal work-study regulations, Amherst College has wide latitude to decide to whom it gives work-study — it’s “federal” because the federal government provides the funds, not the aid decisions). That means that I start the academic year in the red, lacking $2,200 that the college itself thinks I’ll need to pay the full cost of attending Amherst. I have to work for that money throughout the year, only receiving my “aid” award after months of grading problem sets. And if for whatever reason I can’t work, that aid never materializes.
Meanwhile, students who don’t receive work-study, whether on financial aid or not, have no need to work to get their full financial aid amount. If they decide to work while they’re on campus, then that money is an added bonus on top of the college’s financial aid.
And there aren’t any meaningful benefits to being a work-study student. According to the college’s website, “[e]mployment is open to all Amherst students, without regard to whether they are eligible to receive financial aid.” Work-study students don’t make more, don’t have access to more or better jobs and aren’t favored over other students for many campus positions.
Ultimately, this system is unfair to work-study students. We’re told that we have to work to get our aid while others have more time to spend on homework, extracurriculars, research and leisure. And it probably increases student loan debt: this so-called “aid” trickles in over the entire academic year, but student expenses, whether they be fees, books, travel or other necessities, are concentrated at the beginning of each semester. Students’ only recourse? Loans.
Even if you believe that students should have to work their way through college, federal work-study poses an equity issue. Right now, the system forces only some students to work to pay their tuition. If Amherst wants to lift up students with financial need, it shouldn’t put them at an additional financial disadvantage to their peers the day they get on campus.
Work-study makes life harder for those who get it, forcing us to use our paycheck for necessities while everyone else’s needs are covered. At the end of the day, work-study “aid” is really the dubious gift of getting less in grants from the college. The only winner is Amherst College, which gets to employ students at federally-subsidized rates.
The federal government paying a portion of student wages is fine by me. But Amherst uses work-study allowances to give needy students less, then turns around and presents it as financial aid. That shouldn’t fool anyone.