Work-study money flatlines after stimulus boost

Students nationally participate in federal work-study programs to help pay for college, like these women at the University of Missouri. In Colorado, a growing number of students are seeking a limited number of work-study jobs.

While it may not seem like much, Red Rocks Community College student Neal Porter says he got more than just the $8.75 hourly wage at his work-study job in the school’s financial aid office.

The 21-year-old, who lives at home to save money, got an insider’s view of the complicated world of financial aid that he believes will help him enormously when he transfers to the University of Denver and pursues a pre-med track. He made close friends. It was only a tad less than he earned working at Water World over the summer and he didn’t risk sunburn. He spent the money he earned on gas, his cell phone bill and food.

“It’s a great opportunity,” Porter said. “They work around your schedule, and give you time off for finals if you need it. It gave me independence, which is kind of nice.”

The community college, in turn, received low-cost staffing help, mostly paid for by state and federal dollars.

But Porter was among about 55 students told to leave their part-time work-study jobs earlier than they wanted to this semester because the college ran out of money for the program. He was able to tap into another hourly student employment program, but the lack of adequate work-study dollars to meet student demand is a growing concern statewide, financial aid officials say.

The pool of state dollars available for work-study programs has grown 16 percent over the past decade, from $14.3 million in 1999-2000 to $16.6 million this academic year, but state and federal work-study dollars have stagnated for the past five — despite growing numbers of students with demonstrated financial need who are interested in working their way through school. While the average work-study award increased 8.5 percent from 2004 to 2009, to $2,160, the number of work-study students is now essentially the same as it was six years ago, up to  8,360 from 8,278 in 2004.

Work-study makes up 16 percent of the state’s financial aid pool, with most of that pool – or 71 percent – going for need-based aid. The cash-strapped state of Colorado has no plans to increase the amount of work-study money in fiscal 2011 despite wait lists reported at many public colleges universities.

“In order to expand it, something else would have to be reduced unless we find a funding source,” said Celina Duran, financial aid administrator for the Colorado Department of Higher Education. “The state has restored cuts that were made to work-study during the last recession and with the current downturn there has not been an opportunity to increase it. Work-study is particularly in demand during an economic downturn.”

Stimulus funds help, but not enough

President Obama increased federal dollars available for work-study – which encourage work in community service areas or fields tied to the student’s major  – through one-time stimulus funding, which helped a few more students get jobs this year. But the money won’t last. And some schools didn’t get a dime of it.

The University of Colorado at Colorado Springs would have seen its federal allocation cut if not for federal stimulus dollars, but the net amount of federal funding did not increase this year. UCCS staff had to jump through many bureaucratic hoops to keep the funding it has by reclassifying its existing federal work-study money, said Mark Hoffman, the campus’s student employment and AmeriCorps coordinator.

In Colorado, more work-study dollars come from the state than the federal government. At least a quarter of it comes from the institutions themselves.

UCCS is one of the fastest growing campuses in Colorado, with enrollment that rose 7.1 percent this spring over a year ago, bringing its total enrollment to 8,500 students. Work-study funding has grown only 10 percent over the past decade and isn’t coming close to meeting student need, Hoffman said.

“The people that come to our school are people that need some financial assistance,” Hoffman said. “We have a high percentage of students with Pell Grant eligibility.”

About 500 students hold work-study jobs, but the campus “could easily award triple that amount,” he said.

“We’re cutting off students with an (expected family contribution) of $2,000,” Hoffman said. “That’s a lot of need. We didn’t get halfway through the Pell Grant people before we ran out of work-study. We have a population that is willing to work and wants to work.”

UCCS students who do have work-study tend to work an average of 15 hours per week at $9 per hour. The school tries to award $2,000 per semester, but that’s down from $2,250. Tuition and fees this year totaled $6,470; but cost of attendance, which includes housing, books and other expenses, is $21,792.

The campus received $577,539 from the state this year for its work-study program and $458,381 from the federal government. Hoffman said his office alone hires 20 to 30 work-study students every year.

“We literally could not get our work done without them,” he said.

Red Rocks pulls the plug early on some work-study students

Red Rocks Financial Aid Director Linda Crook said the school received $26,000 in additional federal stimulus dollars for work-study this year, which paid for five additional students in the program. The state kicks in $309,066 to Red Rocks, while federal funding is $150,000.

“Generally, we have about 110 students working on campus, from the cafeteria to the media area setting up projectors for instructors,” Crook said. “They might work in admissions, financial aid and advising, or as dispatchers for the police. They’re everywhere on campus. We have lots of jobs that could be work-study if there was funding.”

This year, Red Rocks had a wait list of about 180 people who “would have liked to do work-study and were eligible” – up from a typical wait list of 100 students.

“People on the list are coming in every week to see where they are on it,” Crook said. “Sometimes, students quit the job mid-semester. Now, they’re not quitting the jobs. They need the funds.”

Crook is a major proponent of work-study as opposed to grants.

“People are working for it. You’re actually a getting a service as opposed to free money.”

Typically, Red Rocks has some work-study money set aside so it can extend work hours for students who max out their allotment before the semester ends. This spring, that wasn’t possible.

“We had to switch to where the department was paying them or they had to quit their jobs,” Crook said.

The University of Northern Colorado has about 600 work-study students. So far, UNC has been able to keep up with student demand, UNC spokesman Nate Haas said. Generally, work-study awards total $3,000 per year and students must not work more than 40 hours per week. The Greeley campus received an additional $35,000 in stimulus funding this year, bringing the total in federal dollars to $400,000. State funding totaled $1.1 million.

The Metropolitan State College of Denver, meanwhile, received the largest allocation of state work-study dollars of all Colorado campuses this year, or $1.9 million. Its federal funding totaled just over $754,758. About 480 Metro students are earning it. The maximum allowable is $2,500 per semester.

“We always could use more work-study since we typically have a wait list of around 250 students,” Metro’s Director of Financial Aid Cindy Hejl said.

Front Range’s work-study coffers also depleted

Front Range Community College is also experiencing a surge in work-study applications, said Collegewide Financial Aid Director Carolee Goldsmith. This year, Front Range received an additional $66,000 in stimulus funding and $21,000 through FEMA because of the tornado that ripped through Windsor two years ago, bringing the federal work-study total to $300,000. The college also received $752,359 from the state. About 500 students participate in the program across Front Range’s Fort Collins, Boulder and Westminster campuses.

“We’re still going to run out of work-study funding for the summer term,” Goldsmith said. “As an institution, we have decided to continue funding students but we’re going to be funding them through the institution.”

That means Front Range will divert $115,000 from its general fund to continue work-study this summer.

Goldsmith said she is fielding calls every week from students who have recently been laid off or been out of work for a while “wanting to come back to be retrained.”

“They’re looking for different types of funding,” Goldsmith said. “You can’t really put a price tag on (work-study). I think students gain not only work experience, especially if they’re working in a department that’s going to keep tabs on them, I think they are more likely to succeed if they have that connection to the campus.”

Colorado Work-Study Allocations by Fiscal Year

2010: $16,612,357

2009: $16,280,110

2008: $14,884,300

2007: $15,003,374

2006: $15,003,372

2005: $15,030,062

2004: $16,612,357

2003: $15,359,754

2002: $14,811,367

2001: $14,248,944

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.