The Case for Work-Study in Community Service

by Jesse Fask
If colleges were to devote 25 percent of their work-study jobs to community service, up from the current seven percent, work-study students would comprise the largest community service group in the US, surpassing Americorps. In my case, I got a four-year window on other cultures--thanks to having learned Latin at Baltimore City College.

It is a story I've told many times. The story of how I got started working with kids. It was through my college work-study. I was looking for a way out of my miserable placement at the physical plant of Beloit College in southern Wisconsin. I was a spoiled kid who did not want to rake leaves, mow grass, or shovel snow for ten hours a week. Then, one afternoon in early September of my freshman year, I received a flyer in my mailbox. It was from the Help Yourself Program, a program working with low-income and minority children in Beloit and South Beloit. And why was this flyer placed in my mailbox? I had no experience working with kids. It was because I had taken two years of Latin at Baltimore City College High School. The Help Yourself Program was an after-school program that taught kids Latin. I started as a bus aide and then spent three years as a teaching aide in fourth and seventh grade classrooms.

Now, most people I knew had work-study jobs washing dishes in the dining hall or checking out student's books at the library. That is because, according to the Department of Education, the average college directs less than twelve percent of its work-study jobs toward community service. Recently, this negligence by colleges and universities in supplying students with social service jobs has been noticed by lawmakers. Senators Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and John McCain (R-Ariz.) introduced legislation that would require schools to devote 25 percent of their work-study jobs to community service, up from the current seven percent, work-study students would comprise the largest community service group in the U.S., surpassing Americorps.

My work-study experience was one of the most valuable experiences I had in college. The college is an elite institution sitting on a hill overlooking the factory-polluted air of downtown Beloit, Wisconsin. Town-gown relations were not good. But my work-study took me into town on a regular basis. Being in the program for four years, parents knew me as the college kid who worked with their children. I was invited into the large black, Mexican-American, and Vietnamese-American communities, an educational opportunity that was offered to too few of my fellow students. And it would not have been offered to me if I hadn't taken Latin, which until then I had thought of as an impractical footnote to my academic career.

When the work-study program was introduced in the Economic Opportunity Act of 1964, it had an understood purpose to provide community service as part of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty. Now the work-study program is used by colleges and universities to provide cheap sources of campus labor. This is especially happening in the most elite universities. Seventy-five percent of the nation's top 20 colleges and universities are below the national average in percentage of work-study jobs devoted to community service. The only one of these schools that is in the top ten nationally is Stanford University.

The reality is that the majority of college students would rather do community service than wash dishes. And, since the federal government is funding 75 percent of work-study wages, it seems that these jobs should be used for social justice rather than unskilled college jobs, where in many cases, kids sit around and get paid to do homework. The McCain-Bayh bill is the first step in helping the work-study program live up to its potential.

My work-study job has directed me on a career path in social work, studying to be a child therapist. If this bill is enacted, maybe more college students will come to see the value of social service as a career.

For more information, see Joshua Green's article on "The Other College Rankings" at

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This story was published on April 4, 2002.