UT's work-study program needs improvement

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The internship economy is less than ideal for most college students, who often have to work long hours for little or no pay in order to gain the sort of entry-level experience that so many employers require.

But the system’s biggest victims aren’t the interns themselves but rather those whose financial circumstances prevent them from interning in the first place.

 For students already struggling to pay tuition and rent, it’s impossible to sacrifice a semester’s or a summer’s worth of wages in exchange for a chance at better job prospects in the future. That means that those who can afford to work for free gain a notable advantage in the hiring process over those who can’t, and an economy that’s supposed to be meritocratic winds up closing off opportunities for the young, bright and economically disadvantaged.

That kind of inequity should be especially concerning for a school like UT, which serves a huge number of students from low-income backgrounds by virtue of its size and admission procedures. Yet the University’s work-study program, which is theoretically designed to provide poorer students with opportunities already afforded to their wealthier counterparts, is almost pathetically small. 

According to the Office of Student Financial Services, there are only 844 people enrolled in UT’s work-study programs, a minuscule number for such an economically diverse school. To make matters worse, none are currently working in the private sector. 

While there’s no guarantee that an off-campus job would carry the same benefits as an internship, there’s equally little experiential value in working behind a secretarial desk or a dining hall cash register. Those kinds of work-study positions also carry a strong opportunity cost, depriving participants of the chance to intern, volunteer or get involved with student organizations.

In essence, UT’s shallow pool of work-study job offerings deprives some of its neediest students of invaluable networking and leadership opportunities.

A bill currently under consideration in the Texas Legislature seeks to address that issue by requiring universities to expand their work-study programs into the private sector. If enacted, the legislation would help the state’s needier students escape the kinds of menial or unskilled on-campus positions that can hold them back from competing for high-profile jobs in the future.

Whether or not the bill would have a significant impact in practice is unclear. Its strictest provisions only apply to schools in cities with over 1 million residents, so UT wouldn’t have to substantially reform its work-study system until Austin breaks that barrier within the next few years. And the usefulness of a work-study job depends on the tasks it assigns and the skills it confers, not whether or not a private company is writing a percentage of the paychecks. Working at an ad agency or a PR firm would be far more meaningful for a marketing major than cleaning tables at Kinsolving. Taking orders at an off campus restaurant probably wouldn’t be. If the private-sector jobs that schools provide wind up looking like the on-campus jobs being replaced, the new system would have exactly the same problems as the current one.

So regardless of whether the bill passes, UT should still make an effort to improve its work-study offerings in order to adequately prepare low-income students for life after graduation. Even without expanding employment opportunities off-campus, there are plenty of ways to do that. 

As it’s currently constructed, the work-study program mostly funnels participants into service-level jobs or low-ranking administrative positions. But a school with UT’s research capabilities should have no trouble establishing more academic work opportunities for interested students. 

For example, professors or graduate students in need of research assistants could connect with compatible work-study recipients via the program’s online job bank. And there are plenty of on-campus laboratories or archives in need of maintenance and organization. Placing work-study recipients in those environments can give them the access to field-specific experience that wealthier students can gain through poorly compensated internships.

Adopting these kinds of reforms would allow the University to help remedy a major economic injustice. There’s no reason for it to wait for regulations from the statehouse in order to do so.

Shenhar is a Plan II, government and economics sophomore from Westport, Connecticut. He writes about campus and education issues. Follow Shenhar on Twitter @jshenhar.