Although empirical evidence on the program’s outcomes is limited and imperfect, the findings outlined in the 2015 Columbia University study make a good case for continued funding. Students who participate are more likely than those who don’t to graduate and have a job after college, for example, and it provides needy students with a job that’s required to accommodate their academic needs—the employer even needs to sign an agreement acknowledging that academics come first, according to Scott-Clayton.
Interestingly, much of the criticism of the program has come from those on the left who say its distribution formula disproportionately favors the wealthy, something the administration highlighted in its rationale for reducing funding. The students who tend to reap its greatest academic benefits—those who attend public institutions, are poor, and would work regardless of whether they had access to the subsidies—are least likely to receive the aid. That’s in part because the funding formula bases a given college’s grant amount primarily on what the institution received in previous years rather than on proven need; in turn, it tends to favor established, expensive institutions.
A research brief Scott-Clayton co-published earlier this year found that a third of dependent undergraduates attending private, four-year institutions received work-study benefits, compared to just 2 percent of their peers at community colleges and 7 percent of those at public, four-year colleges. Some worry that, depending on how the budgeting is structured, the proposed cuts would skew the program even more toward institutions that serve small numbers of low-income students.
“It would be very sad to see the program get abandoned before there’s been a really serious effort both to address the distribution of funds across institutions and also to rethink how the program is designed,” Scott-Clayton said.
The proposed reductions to the work-study program echo a larger effort on the part of the White House to streamline and pare down federal financial aid, a realm that policymakers across the political spectrum agree is in need of simplification. But advocates argue that simply eliminating or drastically reducing certain programs could be devastating for current borrowers.
Scott-Clayton highlighted the proposal to eliminate Public Service Loan Forgiveness as particularly worrisome. As part of the program, which was enacted in 2007, college graduates who work for qualified nonprofit or government employers in fields such as social work and teaching are eligible for loan forgiveness after a decade; nearly 553,000 people are currently on track to have their loans forgiven, the first cohort of which would receive their benefits this year.
Among the myriad areas that would also face cuts: summer and after-school programs, efforts focused on teacher training and reducing class sizes, and arts education. Two of the department’s largest K-12 expenditures—Title I, which supports low-income children, and special education—would remain funded at existing levels, as would historically black colleges and universities. Trump’s plan also retains year-round Pell grants—an option that Congress, in what the Center for American Progress has described as “the biggest policy win for higher-education advocates on both sides of the aisle,” is restoring in its omnibus appropriations bill.