Texas Just Passed a Law About College Work-Study and Here’s Why It Matters

This article was published by TalkPoverty.org.

For a full-time, in-state student at The University of Texas at Austin to pay their tuition by working a minimum wage job, they would need to work more than 17 hours per day, 7 days per week. If students cast off all other trappings of modern life, they would divide their remaining hours between going to class (assuming a standard course load, that’s at least three hours per day), completing assignments (three more hours), sleeping (eight hours, or your risk of stroke increases), and commuting (that’s another hour, if you’re lucky).

That bare-bones schedule adds up to a 32-hour day. And that’s without eating, showering, or any of the extracurriculars — like internships — that get students hired.

For students who work to pay their way through school, an unpaid internship isn’t an option. In Texas, as in other states, these students take work in the retail or food industries to pay their bills. They graduate with a degree, but without the work experience that helps them to compete against their more-affluent peers.

That’s why Texas’s new, deeply-wonky law requiring the state to start collecting more data on state work-study participants is actually a big deal. Simply collecting data won’t amount to much for Texas students — but it’s a first step toward addressing gaps that plague the state’s higher education system.

Low Higher Educational Attainment, Low Financial Aid Investment

Between 1990 and 2010, costs at public four-year institutions in Texas increased by 286 percent — more than double the national rate. Meanwhile, Texas’s higher education attainment rate is below the national average. Less than 1 in 5 Texas eighth graders will eventually complete a higher education degree or certificate in 11 years, with that number plummeting to 1 in 10 for those from low-income families.

That’s at least in part because the state has also failed to invest in student aid at adequate levels, ranking second to last among the most-populous states. Students in Texas are much more likely to have to rely on loans, as opposed to grants, to pay for school than their peers in other states.

The Need for a Degree and a Resume

As college becomes more inaccessible to low-income students, it’s also becoming more important. In less than five years, more than half of jobs in all states will require some type of higher education — including 62 percent of jobs in Texas. At the same time, employers have reduced the number of entry-level positions and the amount of training time they offer. An administrator at Baylor University explained that young workers who previously expected two years of training time when entering a company would “be lucky” to get six months of training. And while previous generations could have expected positions similar to what we now call internships to pay, the use of unpaid internships to fill entry-level work has rapidly risen.

That leaves students who need to earn their way through school in a tight spot, since paid, career-related work is hard to come by. “I’ve never had a problem getting a job,” one University of Texas student explained, “[but] the only jobs that are available to get is like waitressing or … retail.” Similarly, a senior at UT from Dallas had worked all four years of school, and with the additional help of grants, had only accumulated $5,000 in student debt. But because she relied on her own earnings, she had to turn down multiple internships that would have given her experience in her intended field — and potential employers noted problems with a lack of experience on her resume as she launched her post-graduation job hunt.

Given these facts, it is understandable — though perhaps slightly tone-deaf — that Texas employers recently reported not being able to find qualified applicants as a top work-related concern.

Work-Study Could Be a Way Forward

Texas is one of fourteen states with its own work-study program — the Texas College Work-Study Program (TCWSP) — in addition to the federal program. Traditionally, work-study positions have been limited to on-campus placements like monitoring computer labs, reshelving library books, and running the mailroom. But two years ago, the Texas legislature began requiring that a significant percentage of placements be off-campus, which makes career-oriented work at outside companies a possibility.

The state already collects some data on participating employers, but under the new bill the state will report on participating students, too. That will allow administrators and advocates to track whether employers in the TWSP are mismatched with students’ career paths, and identify where the program is failing to foster career-growth opportunities. That will help students build out their resumes, and it will help administrators recruit companies from industries that are underrepresented in the program.

And, as the program becomes more effective, the popularity of expanding it — both among families and employers — will likely grow.

That’s essential, because work study is one of the few forms of state financial aid in Texas that remains a consistently bipartisan topic. Before Texas’s past legislative session, state leaders directed a 4 percent budget reduction among agencies across the board. In such a political climate, a significant investment in state grant programs was essentially off the table.

Work-study cannot be the only vehicle to increase opportunity for low-income students. But for the many other states facing budget reductions or led by lawmakers disinclined to invest in higher education, the progress in Texas could serve as an example as one important way to do so.