Is filling the shelves of your college library a community service?

September 13, 2002

Universities have been accused of exploiting work-study, which aims to help students pay education costs in return for work in the public interest. Stephen Phillips reports

Providence, Rhode Island, is one of America's oldest cities. Droves of tradition-hungry US tourists descend on the state capital each year. But the picture postcard appeal has a flipside. Lead paint coating many of the buildings in the city's poorer neighbourhoods represents a major public health hazard.

Enter Brown University. For the past seven years, students from the local Ivy League institution have helped staff the Rhode Island Childhood Lead Action Project, conducting research into the continuing incidence of lead poisoning, even helping frame proposed legislation to force landlords to clean up.

Forging such relationships is exactly what the architects of the Federal Work-Study programme had in mind at its inception in 1964, when they set out "to mobilise the human and financial resources of the nation to combat poverty in the US".

The scheme, which the Institute for Public Policy Research cited in a recent report urging the UK to adopt similar programmes, was directed at helping "students from low-income families" finance their education by working on campus or for "a public or private non-profit organisation (on) work related to the student's educational objective (or) in the public interest".

At its best, it represents a vector for campus-sponsored community activism, inculcating a social conscience in students while helping them pay their way and acquire life experiences beyond those they might encounter while working in a burger joint. But in many instances, it is seen as a pretext for using poor students as cheap on-campus labour while paying lip service to ideals of community-mindedness.

Certainly work-study is flourishing if money and student participation are any guide. Still flush from Clinton-era hikes to the initiative's budget, universities can expect to have $1 billion (£645 million) at their disposal this year. And, buoyed by President George W. Bush's emphasis on voluntary service in post-September 11 America, there is little risk of such generous financial support ebbing away any time soon.

Almost 1 million students are involved in the scheme. "It's very popular with students," says Barbara Hubler, director of financial aid at San Francisco State University.

Andrea Gomez looks back fondly on her work-study experiences at the University of Michigan. "I became involved in something I wouldn't have (otherwise)," she says. Gomez, who is now 25 years old and working in a think-tank in San Francisco, helped record spoken books for the blind and collaborated on a study of civic disengagement in Detroit for which she also earned academic credit.

Many universities lavish support on work-study students. Alan Flam, senior fellow at Brown's Swearer Center for Public Service, is the university's coordinator of work-study students. "With every one of the students, we (spend) time to ensure that the work they are doing has some positive impact on their life and (meets) a community need," he says.

Across the US, work-study students put in an average of 11 hours a week on the job, according to a nationwide poll conducted in 1998 by the department of education. Average wages were $6.10 an hour. The survey reported a 95 per cent approval rating among alumni.

Work-study has also proved a flexible instrument for governmental social policy initiatives.

After a 1994 survey found that 40 per cent of US eight-year-olds lacked basic reading skills, work-study was mobilised to support the resultant America Reads literacy drive. In 1996, 100,000 work-study positions were earmarked for literacy tutoring. Participants were also dragooned into the America Counts initiative tackling a similar numeracy crisis. In both instances, the government underwrites the entire pay packet of students (in the case of other community projects it pays only 75 per cent, and employers must come up with the balance).

But most work-study participants - far from working in the vanguard of poverty eradication - are stuck in campus-based posts. This has led to concerns that many US universities are playing the system to exploit students as cheap labour.

Colleges are supposed to use no more than 7 per cent of their work-study funding for their own community service but, according to figures reported annually by institutions, many ignore this. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology devoted just 2.2 per cent of its 2000-01 allotment to community initiatives, according to the Corporation for National and Community Service.

In fact, 67 per cent of the top 52 universities as ranked by US News and World Report devoted less than the national average of 12.5 per cent of their allocation to community initiatives. Yet - as a result of antiquated funding formulas and political patronage - these institutions are the biggest recipients of aid, says Robert Corrigan, president of San Francisco State University and former chairman of President Bill Clinton's literacy programme.

"The way work-study was organised and has developed, you get more money if you are on the East Coast and a private institution. The further west you go, (universities) don't do as well" - and publicly funded community colleges fare worst of all, Corrigan says.

Nationwide, just 30 per cent of institutions offer incentives such as higher wages or flexible hours for students to take community-service jobs, the education department's 1998 report notes.

This is a far cry from the original mission of the law enacting work-study "to encourage students receiving (government) aid to participate in community-service activities that will benefit the nation and engender in students a sense of social responsibility and commitment to the community".

"There is a significant difference between students deployed in the (university) campus or library and being in the community tutoring a child," says Elizabeth Hollander of Campus Compact, a coalition dedicated to promoting student volunteerism.

However, there now appears to be considerable political will towards recapturing the original spirit of work-study. John McCain, a challenger for the Republican presidential nomination in 2000, has teamed up with fellow senator Democrat Evan Bayh to introduce a bill that would require institutions to channel one-quarter of their work-study funding to community projects.

Any new proposals will face stiff opposition from powerful university lobbyists, who successfully saw off Clinton's efforts to tie half the programme's funding to community service jobs.

America's work-study programme offers a handy model for British policy-makers - if only in pointing out the pitfalls to avoid. But it has to be noted that, in addition to its wider community benefits, work-study can have a positive impact on students' academic work. According to a recent survey of 22,000 students at the University of California at Los Angeles, community service improved the grades and writing skills of students involved, in addition to raising self-esteem and racial understanding.

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