Working and Learning

A March 12, 2010, column “Student Work”  suggested, One thing that good universities can do is help reconfigure the role of being a college student on campus so that it might include the opportunity to do personally and institutionally useful work that reduces costs for both.” On-campus work reduces college expenses and provides experience for the workplace. Connected thinking and doing.

“Knowing is not enough; we must apply.  Willing is not enough; we must do.”



A National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) working paper released last week addressed the question of whether or not college student employment should be subsidized. Professors Scott-Clayton and Minaya of Teachers College at Columbia University look carefully at the value of subsidizing Federal Work Study. As with many academic papers, the conclusions reached are carefully described and limited.  But, the authors conclude, “With the exception of first-year GPA, we find scant evidence of the negative effects of FWS for any outcome or subgroup. However, positive effects are largest for lower income and lower SAT subgroups suggesting there may be gains to improved targeting of funds.”

In an August 10, 1868, letter from Ezra Cornell to the New York Tribune the same perspective was presented as a commitment by Cornell University to respond to “… young men looking for assistance to enable them to pay their way while obtaining an education at the Cornell University…” [sic]   Apparently these young men would be put to work in the University machine shop, and on the University Farm, making “tools, machinery, models, patterns, etc.”  Additionally, “There will also be employment in laying out, grading, road making, and improving and beautifying the farms and grounds of the University. The work done by students will be paid for at the current rates paid elsewhere for like services.”

The NBER study focuses on subsidized Federal Work-Study.  The trustees and Mr. Cornell saw that need nearly 150 years ago, but funded it through private rather than federal sources.

Such commitments to the value of working and studying are not uncommon. In 2002 the leadership at Southern Illinois University Carbondale instituted an Undergraduate Assistantship Program that would provide students with work at pay rates twice the minimum wage on campus and related to their areas of study. Effectively the program was an internal internship. Originally dubbed “Workships” the name was later changed to undergraduate assistantship — nobody knew what “workships” meant. The intention a decade ago was to offset the increasing cost of attendance by providing a combination of merit and need based aid to juniors and seniors who were transfer students or “late bloomer.”  Little assistance was available to them. In addition, SIU benefited, as Cornell did nearly a century and a half ago, from students helping to productively build, nurture, and participate in university life.

The SIU program was widely perceived to have value. The student newspaper, The Daily Egyptian, not always a friend of the university administration, penned a story that was spot-on in a piece entitled Undergraduate + Assistantships = Opportunity.  Reporter Samantha Edmondson was positive about the concept.  The initiative was strong and continues to this day because it addresses student and university needs simultaneously, like Mr. Cornell’s proposal a century and a half ago.

The cost of education goes up. Educators continually lament the lackluster commitment of students toward hard work.  I don’t embrace this concern. I find the majority of students work-willing but desirous of meaningful work. Work-study has especially high utility when coupled with the student’s area of employment interest. Beyond providing income, invaluable discipline-related work experience accrues to the student.  Such a coupling also benefits faculty, staff, and the university in ways too numerous to catalog.

Concerns of parents and students should be mitigated by research showing over and over again that students engaged in meaningful work  performed better academically as long as the work commitment is reasonable, usually not more than 20 hours per week. Additionally, on-campus work is usually scheduled to respect student class commitments.

Entrepreneurial institutions should find ways to engage students in meaningful work on campus. If work rules of any kind, by any organization, preclude meaningful engagement of students in helping pay their way, change them.  If funds are not available, seek them through private donations.  If university staff cannot find ways to employ students, think harder because it is their job. Mr. Cornell and Professors Scott-Clayton and Minaya was/are correct:  Provide students a means to help themselves and they do. Increasing costs and suffocating debt sap life from the American economy and learning simultaneously.   A hand-up and helping-out was, and is, a welcome concept.

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