It’s Time to Put Work Requirements on College Financial Aid

(Charles Mostoller/Reuters)
It would be better for students and taxpayers alike.

On April 10, President Trump signed an executive order instructing his cabinet to implement work requirements for federal welfare programs. His administration also recently approved work requirements for Medicaid beneficiaries in Arkansas. These steps will help encourage middle-aged Americans to be self-sufficient, but if we really want to reduce government dependency, we have to start earlier. When will we put work requirements on college students who receive federal financial aid?

The federal government gives out $120 billion in financial aid and subsidized student loans, yet it doesn’t require recipients to even work part-time to pay their own bills. This might seem innocent enough, but taxpayers shouldn’t be forced to subsidize college expenses unless students are already doing everything they can to cover their own costs.

In 2015, only about 40 percent of full-time undergraduate students were employed, and around one-third of those students worked less than 19 hours a week. At the same time, about 86 percent of students receive financial aid, 70 percent of which is federally funded. We shouldn’t allow so many young people to ask taxpayers for help if they’re not at least willing to work part-time.

It’s not as if students don’t have enough time to work. Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, says that “in the mid-’60s, a typical college student would be spending 40 hours a week on academic stuff — classes plus studying. And now, it’s about one-third less.” In his view, “College is kind of a party now.”

The reality is that college has gotten easier. In the 1930s, the average student GPA was just 2.3, which comes out to a C+. Today’s it’s 3.3 at private colleges and 3.0 at public universities, so average students are getting B’s. At Harvard, the most common grade given out to undergraduate students is an A.

Work requirements that reduce dependency and encourage employment are actually in any student’s best interest.

Since classes aren’t consuming their free time, students should have to work before they can receive thousands in government grants or bury themselves in federally subsidized loans.

Because almost 60 percent of government aid is given out in the form of loans, work requirements that reduce dependency and encourage employment are actually in any student’s best interest. After all, what better way is there to reduce student debt than to encourage employment? One study from Georgetown University found that while students who work still take on debt, fewer employed students had to borrow more than $50,000 than students who didn’t work. So, in the long run, a work requirement won’t just help the government’s bottom line, it will help the students it supposedly burdens.

Work requirements on other forms of government assistance have successfully encouraged financial solvency and self-sufficiency. When Maine put work requirements on its food-stamp program, the number of able-bodied participants in the program fell by over 70 percent, and the incomes of those no longer dependent on food-stamps doubled on average, compared with what they had been before work requirements were implemented. A report from the left-leaning Brookings Institution found that the 1996 federal welfare reform, which strongly incentivized work, led to huge declines in the number of people receiving cash assistance. It also resulted in an increase in employment among single mothers that can be attributed to work requirements.

Time and time again, work requirements on government assistance have helped lift people out of poverty and dependence. It’s time to take these results and apply them to our broken higher-education system.

It is true that the federal government already offers some financial aid in the form of work-study programs, where students are given job opportunities instead of direct grants or loans. Students who participate in work-study are more likely to graduate, and have an easier time finding a job after college than students who didn’t receive work-study. Work-study is a promising program, but campus employment desperately needs to be expanded.

Only one in 10 students receive work-study, and they work only around 10 hours a week. Out of the $120 billion spent on federal aid, work-study programs only make up about $1 billion, which is less than 1 percent of total funds. Work-study is a good program, but we can do more to help students to solve their own problems — and a work requirement on all federal aid is a good place to start.

Adding work requirements to federal grants wouldn’t radically transform the college financial-aid system –– it would be a modest reform, but a meaningful one. If you want to attend college on the taxpayers’ dime, making a good-faith attempt to pull your own weight shouldn’t be optional.

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