Coronavirus-prompted college campus shutdown halts some work-study payments

Federal work-study program leaves decision of whether to pay students up to colleges

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Some students expecting to be paid through the federal work-study program were instead told they will no longer be receiving the money, as the decision has been left to each college or university, according to a Wednesday report.

The U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid office said on March 5 that students can still receive federal work-study funds “even if they are unable to work their scheduled hours or must perform their work in a different way” as a result of novel coronavirus-prompted interruptions.

But Inside Higher Ed chronicled how some students who relied on the money, such as college junior Emyln Orr, have not been paid.

Undated photo of Pratt Institute campus (Getty Images)

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Orr, a student at New York City’s Pratt Institute, was paid $165 every two weeks and used the payment to buy food and supplies, according to the report. But after being sent home in March, the money never came.

“It feels kind of wrong to ask for money from anyone, but at the same time, this money was supposed to be budgeted,” Orr told the outlet. “Where is it?”’

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FWS provides students with jobs and payment to put toward college-related costs. It most often also requires that the higher educational institutions foot 50 percent of the bill.

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But although the program "permits FWS students to receive FWS," it does not require colleges to pay up, according to guidelines posted online, which also state that the amount may be “less than” the wages typically paid.

“Payments may be made in an amount equal to or less than the amount of FWS wages those students would have been paid had they been able to complete the work obligation necessary to receive FWS funds,” the FWS website states.

Pratt Institute spokesperson Jolene Travis told the outlet in an email the school had exhausted its government-issued work-study funds. The institute would, in turn, use its own money to pay the students – but only those whose work can be completed remotely.

A view of the campus of Boston College on March 31, 2020 in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts. (Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

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“Departments were encouraged to identify work that students could accomplish remotely in order for Pratt to keep as many students employed as possible,” Travis told Inside Higher Ed, adding that students who were not kept on the payroll were offered financial assistance.

John Mahoney, Boston College’s vice provost for enrollment management, said the New England institution has also been unable to afford to pay FWS students who were no longer working.

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The college recently suffered a budget loss after paying $25 million toward student refunds from the suspension of campus activities, according to the report.

“This will be the first year since 1972 that we won’t have a balanced budget here at BC,” Mahoney said. “We simply did not have the funds in the budget to continue paying students that were not able to continue their jobs.”