Community Service Federal Work-Study: The Best-Kept Secret in Higher Education?

By Robert Davidson, Corporation for National and Community Service

At its best, the Federal Work-Study (FWS) program is much more than a form of financial aid; it’s a powerful educational, career-preparation, and community service internship program.

For many colleges and universities, however, the FWS program remains an unrecognized and virtually untapped resource for support of the institution’s academic and civic engagement goals. The FWS program has not received a significant appropriations increase in many years, and its image is often quite negative among the public as well as among participating students. For example, because FWS salaries are generally 75% funded by federal taxpayers — whether the jobs provide services to the community or to the campus — the program has often been criticized on grounds that it provides hidden (and unnecessary) subsidies to college operational budgets. This negative impression can change, however — if the program’s community service and academic missions are better known and are taken more seriously by the higher education community.

In January 2007, Veronika Gilliland, a California State University student, addressed the Board of Directors of the Corporation for National and Community Service. She described her FWS job at the university’s MOSAIC mentoring and tutoring program not only as important in helping at-risk teenagers, but also as life-changing and critical to her own success in college and plans for the future: “I went from almost not graduating high school to feeling like a champion for the community on campus. My work-study position improved my entire educational experience, including my grades…. It was more fulfilling and met my needs more than I could ever have dreamed and has provided me with a multitude of tools and opportunities.” 1 

Unfortunately, Gilliland’s FWS experience is not the norm. The large majority of FWS positions continue to be on-campus jobs that have little or no relationship to the program’s community service or academic purposes. An undergraduate attending a recent New Mexico workshop stated that in his experience and that of other students, work-study jobs are usually unrewarding, unchallenging, and boring, and sometimes amount to little more than “make-work.” To shake off that image he recommended that newly created community service FWS programs establish their own names and identities, separate from a college’s on-campus work-study program. (New Mexico has challenged all colleges and universities in the state to allocate at least 50% of their FWS funds to community service.)

In recent years there’s been impressive growth in college student volunteering and in college commitments to community service and civic engagement. Yet the percentage of FWS funds used for community service, 14.83% in 2005-06 (the most recent data), has declined for each of the last two years. Some colleges devote very high percentages of their FWS allocations to community service, while others don’t even meet the 7% minimum statutory requirement. As a national nonprofit agency executive remarked, it seems that the FWS program’s community service and academic support purposes are “the best-kept secret in higher education.” Can higher education professionals dedicated to student service and civic engagement do more to help unveil the secret?


Statutory Requirements

Some community service professionals are still surprised to learn that one of the statutory purposes of the Federal Work-Study program is “…to encourage students receiving Federal student financial assistance to participate in community service activities that will benefit the Nation and engender in the students a sense of social responsibility and commitment to the community.” 2 By law, all participating institutions are required to spend at least 7% of their annual FWS allocation on community service jobs. These jobs must be identified through consultation with local nonprofit, governmental, and community-based organizations, and they must be designed to improve the quality of life for community residents, particularly low-income individuals. Further, the normal 25% institutional matching amount is waived for FWS students who serve as reading or math tutors of elementary students. 2 In addition, by law, colleges must agree to place FWS students in jobs that “…to the maximum extent practicable, complement and reinforce the educational program or vocational goals of each student….” 2 In other words, colleges are expected to make maximum effort in placing FWS students in jobs that directly support the students’ academic programs or career objectives.

The Largest College Community Service Program?

With an annual appropriation of slightly less than a billion dollars, Federal Work-Study is a relatively small federal student aid program. But in the world of federally supported community service, it’s a giant. In fiscal year 2006, the program supported the community service work of some 128,000 college students. This compares with an estimated 15,000 college students who were AmeriCorps members. Community service FWS programs exist on more than 3,300 college campuses — far more colleges than are reached by AmeriCorps, Learn and Serve America, and other programs of the Corporation for National and Community Service. Moreover, the opportunity for expansion of community service FWS is enormous on most campuses.


Work-Study community service provides students with rich opportunities to:

  • Apply academic learning to real-world problems.
  • Explore and develop their interest in public and community service.
  • Develop interpersonal, teamwork, and leadership skills, as well as a sense of “self-efficacy” — the recognition that one’s efforts can be effective in improving the community and helping others.
  • Experience working with individuals from diverse ethnic and social backgrounds.
  • Learn new, career-related skills.
  • Explore potential career paths and develop career-supporting references.

Perhaps most important for students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, community service FWS helps “level the playing field” in two ways: 1) by allowing pursuit of all these benefits while earning funds for college costs; and 2) by providing access to the kind of career-fostering “internships” that are often more readily available to students from affluent families. For colleges and universities, a strong FWS community service program can:

  • Strengthen campus-community relations.
  • Provide opportunities for positive media coverage.
  • Support academic service-learning and community-based research programs.
  • Help recruit and retain students from low-income families, particularly those whose attraction to community service makes them likely to be successful students and alumni.


The fact that U.S. colleges and universities are increasingly embracing student community service as a basic institutional mission is evidenced by significant growth in the number of Campus Compact member institutions — from 512 colleges in 1996 to more than 1,000 in 2007.3 This trend is further highlighted by the Carnegie Foundation’s new higher education classification, “Community Engagement,” which encompasses curricular engagement and outreach and partnerships. In addition, the national media are beginning to recognize national and community service contributions in their rankings of colleges (e.g., Washington Monthly’s annual ranking of colleges based on national service, and the recent Campus Compact/Princeton Review book, Colleges with a Conscience[The Princeton Review, 2005]). Meanwhile, incoming college students increasingly have participated in community service in secondary school and expect to continue service activities during college. A 2006 report by the Corporation for National and Community Service (CNCS) found that the current rate of volunteering among older teenagers, 28.4%, is more than double the 1989 figure of 13.4%. Another CNCS study found that approximately 3.3 million college students volunteered in 2005 — an increase of approximately 600,000, or 20%, since 2002. This is more than double the 9% volunteering growth rate among all adult volunteers. 4


Missing, Meeting, or Exceeding the 7% Requirement

Given the clear benefits of community service FWS for students and colleges, the program’s statutory purposes, and the recent national trends in institutional commitment and college student volunteering, it’s surprising — and disturbing — that the national percentage of FWS funds being used for community service jobs has stopped growing and actually begun to decline. The FWS community service rate more than doubled between the mid-1990s and the mid-2000s — from 7.2% in 1994-95 (when the Department of Education began collecting these data) to 15.91% in 2003-04. It then dropped to 15.75% in 2004-05, and to 14.83% in 2005-06.5 The most recent (2005-06) data from the Department of Education show a dramatic range in institutional commitment to community service FWS:6

  • Some 11% of institutions receiving FWS funds, or 369 schools (about the same proportion as in earlier years), failed to meet the 7% requirement or obtain a Secretarial waiver exempting them from the requirement.
  • Meanwhile, 1,079 schools, or 32% of participating institutions, spent 20% or more of their FWS funds on community service (an increase from 846 schools and 25.4% the previous year).
  • About 4%, or 141 schools, achieved community service rates of 40% or higher. This includes 9 schools that spent 100% of their FWS funds on community service.

Again, one must ask — why are some schools doing so much while others are doing so little?

Department of Education Study

The Department of Education’s 2000 study of the Federal Work-Study program’s campus operations (the only such study ever conducted) provides several relevant findings. 7 For example, of all FWS jobs, 43% were clerical, 10% were library support, 5% were computer support, and 19% were “other” — including maintenance and food service jobs. While some of these jobs may have been interesting or convenient for students, they were probably not often jobs that complemented the individual’s academic program or enhanced his or her sense of social responsibility. Among FWS students employed in community service:

  • 88% said they would take such jobs in the future;
  • 62% said their jobs supported their academic or career goals;
  • 68% said their jobs had positive effects on their academic performance; and
  • 81% said their experiences would result in personal community service activities in the future.

FWS students not engaged in community service said they were not able to participate in community service jobs because:

  • Course schedules did not allow time for community service jobs (42%);
  • Community service jobs were not conveniently located (17%);
  • They were never made aware that they had a community service option under the FWS program (14%); or
  • They had sought but were unable to locate FWS community service jobs (11%).

Considering those last findings, one must ask: Can colleges do more to allow flexibility in course scheduling or to combine course work with community service? Are community service jobs really so unavailable to students? Finally, can colleges do more both to recruit community agency partners and to provide information to students about available community service FWS opportunities?


Financial Aid professionals identify a variety of reasons for the lack of growth in community service FWS. Several are provided below, along with responses and possible solutions.

“It’s Too Much Work”

Some Financial Aid administrators complain that community service FWS simply adds to their workload, including work required to establish and maintain relationships with off-campus community service organizations.

  • As many Financial Aid administrators have found, schools may use the FWS program’s Job Location and Development allowance to support community service coordination positions.
  • FWS students themselves may be used to handle community service coordination functions.
  • Financial Aid offices often can find partner organizations (e.g., on-campus student service coordination offices and off-campus community agencies) that are willing to take on some of the chores.
“We’re Too Far from Communities with Problems”

Some Financial Aid administrators at rural or suburban campuses point to their distance from urban areas as a hurdle, saying that they are not near communities with serious problems that students can help address.

  • Nonprofit organizations, schools, and government agencies in rural and suburban areas know that serious community issues are not confined to cities. They welcome energetic college students who can help with education, health care, environmental, and other other issues.
  • Many colleges in rural areas have relatively high FWS community service rates. For example, Hobart and William Smith Colleges, in rural upstate New York, has a community service rate of 30.68%.
“Transportation Is Too Difficult”

Some schools find that off-campus community service activities involve transportation-related costs that are difficult to meet. This is a real issue for many institutions, but it need not be a show-stopper.

  • Some colleges have obtained transportation support from local transportation agencies or businesses.
  • Institution-owned vehicles can sometimes double as community service shuttles, and FWS students can serve as drivers.
  • Colleges receiving grants under the Higher Education Act’s Title III Institutional Aid programs may use those funds to subsidize student travel to community service jobs.
  • The time students spend in transit to community service jobs may be covered by their FWS salaries.
“On-Campus Jobs Fit Better with Class Schedules”

Some Financial Aid administrators explain that it’s hard to interest students in off-campus community service jobs when interesting on-campus work-study jobs are closer to classes and more likely to work with their course schedules. They may also say that on-campus jobs support students’ educational goals.

  • Many colleges and community agencies are successful in scheduling off-campus service opportunities around class schedules. Making community agencies aware of scheduling issues such as exam periods and vacations is key.
  • Community service jobs need not be located off-campus. Many involve the coordination of student volunteers or service-learning programs, and are primarily located on campus.
  • Of course, meaningful on-campus FWS jobs that truly support the student’s academic goals should be encouraged. Schools believing that academically supportive on-campus FWS jobs are keeping their community service percentages low can verify that by surveying all of their FWS students.
“Community Service Gives Away Our Subsidy”

As mentioned above, in general, the federal government pays 75% of a FWS student’s salary. Some college administrators candidly acknowledge that they resist expanding community service FWS programs because the federal subsidy is a needed source of financial support for their dining halls, libraries, and other campus operating budgets. This attitude may be more pervasive than many colleges would like to admit.

  • True or not, the impression given by a low community service FWS rate is that the college is more interested in continuing a federal subsidy for its operating budget than in more fully honoring the community service purposes of the program or its own civic engagement mission.
  • As more colleges and universities make community service and/or civic engagement part of their mission (as do 89% of Campus Compact’s member institutions), community service FWS should be seen as an opportunity both to support the institution’s mission and to demonstrate that support publicly.
“Federal Policies Limit Community Service”

Myths and misperceptions about federal policies governing FWS community service abound. Some of these misperceptions may be hampering program growth. For instance:

  • It’s not true that community service FWS positions must be with an off-campus agency; jobs can be located on campus, and the college can be the employer.
  • It’s not true that FWS salaries can’t exceed the federal minimum wage; the college sets the wages, not the government.
  • It’s not true that FWS students must use their awards during academic terms. Some schools have strong “alternative spring break” and other non-academic period programs that use FWS.
  • It’s not true that FWS students can’t participate in service-learning or other academic internship programs carrying academic credit. FWS salaries can’t cover in-class time, but they can pay for course-related community service time.
  • It’s not true that FWS students can’t earn AmeriCorps education awards for the same hours they serve as FWS participants. In fact, hundreds of FWS students do exactly that as part of JumpStart and many Campus Compact programs.

(For more information on FWS regulations, see Partnering with Financial Aid.)

“Federal Work-Study Appropriations Aren’t Growing”

Some blame low community service rates on flat federal appropriations for the overall FWS program. It’s certainly easier to add new community service jobs when FWS allocations are increasing than it is to shift jobs from the campus to the community within a “zero-sum” budget environment. It can be done, however — and doing so may help provide a rationale for increasing appropriations in the future.

  • Even during times of limited appropriations growth, most colleges have significant room to expand their community service FWS programs. A school with a 15% community service rate, for example, can still look closely at the 85% of its FWS salaries that are not community service-related.
  • The greatest increases in FWS appropriations came in the years immediately after President Clinton and the Congress dramatically emphasized the community service power of FWS by waiving the institutional match for students serving as elementary reading and math tutors (in what became known as the America Reads and America Counts programs). Political support for increasing the FWS program’s appropriation can be revived if the community service and academic support aspects of the program are better publicized and more strongly supported by college leaders.


What steps can higher education professionals take to expand and improve community service FWS programs? Following are five suggestions to help get this important work done as efficiently and effectively as possible:

  1. Promote greater awareness of the benefits of community service FWS among students, administrators, faculty, and community agencies — through local media, campus newsletters, and websites. Highlight stories about community impact and individual student achievements.
  2. Develop cross-campus partnerships. The value of collaboration among campus offices (e.g., financial aid, student affairs, service-learning, student service offices, and academic departments) may seem obvious, but it’s not happening as widely as it might. Joint projects in the recruitment and screening of students and of community agencies can produce cost efficiencies and synergies. Academic departments and pre-professional programs that require or promote the use of community-based internships (e.g., medicine, nursing, social work, teaching, law, engineering) are natural FWS partners. In particular, given the academic support mission of the FWS program, there’s a natural fit between a college’s service-learning and work-study programs. 8
  3. Inventory your campus’s FWS position descriptions and survey your FWS students to ensure that jobs are meaningful — not “make-work” — and that they support individual students’ academic or career goals. Results from such inventories and surveys can be used developing programs and recruiting new students.
  4. Identify and examine your institution’s policies and procedures regarding the allocation of Federal Work-Study jobs. This subject appears to be an accidental or intentional mystery on many campuses. Evaluate whether the existing allocation system fully supports your institution’s civic engagement and educational missions. Consider creating an advisory committee on this issue composed of students, faculty, and officials from Student Affairs, Financial Aid, and Community Service.
  5. Use the national institution-by-institution FWS community service data to identify peer institutions and other colleges and universities that have achieved exceptional FWS community service records, and seek their advice on successful practices.

Finally, higher education professionals interested in expanding community service FWS and improving the educational relevance of FWS jobs should not be shy about seeking the ear of college presidents, Student Affairs deans, and chief academic officers. These officials are in the best position to appreciate the program’s potential for supporting the institution’s missions, to provide leadership in redirecting FWS subsidies, and to reveal publicly “the best-kept secret in higher education.”


1. MOSAIC (Mentoring to Overcome Struggles and Inspire Courage) is a gang-prevention partnership between California State University, Northridge and ten community programs run by police officers, schools, and community-based organizations in the San Fernando Valley. It involves Federal Work-Study and service-learning students, professors who teach evidence-based theory, and community experts acting as co-educators who instruct them in how to apply theory in practical ways to connect with youth from disadvantaged circumstances. Veronika Gilliland is currently pursuing a master’s degree in social work at the University of Southern California.

2. See sections 441(c) and 443(b) of Title IV of the Higher Education Act. See section 443(b)(7) of the Higher Education Act.

3. Source: Campus Compact.

4. These studies are available from the Corporation for National Community Service.

5. Source: U.S. Department of Education.

6. The latest community service rates for all participating postsecondary institutions.

7. The full report of the National Study of the Operation of the Federal Work-Study Program, 2000.

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