New and improved work-study

David Laude

All too often when I sit down with a student who is struggling in my class, the issue comes down to not studying enough. In digging a little deeper, I find it’s often because the student has a job while going to school full time.

About half of UT students work while going to school, according to a 2011 student experience survey. Among those students, the type of work is split about evenly between on- and off-campus jobs. Look more closely at the data and you’ll find that freshmen are more likely to work off campus, as are underrepresented minority students.

While none of this is surprising to me, it certainly poses challenge in my efforts to manage four-year graduation rates. Students who fail courses in their freshman year have a harder time graduating within four years, and if, in some cases, the root reason is an economic one, then it’s time to get creative.

As part of my plan, the University will allocate about $5 million in one-time discretionary financial aid money toward creating pilot programs for several hundred students in the 2013-14 class who are likely to work off campus or take out loans to pay for college. The programs will incentivize behaviors that are consistent with student success, and in particular, the likelihood of graduating in four years.

For example, students might earn a scholarship during their sophomore year that is tied to completing 30 hours of coursework and being on time to graduate after their first year. Another example is paying these students to participate in experiential learning opportunities, such as working in on-campus research labs or internships.

But of all of our new financial aid initiatives, I am most excited about the work program that is being developed with the Office of Student Financial Services and several of the University’s academic success programs. The work program will be tied to a student’s personal, academic and professional growth — financially rewarding students for turning into something special as they graduate.

The student who, as a freshman, was working 20 hours a week off campus is now, under the new program, being paid for 20 hours of participation each week in academic communities and leadership programs. By the student’s sophomore year, he or she is a paid peer mentor or tutor and, by his or her junior or senior year, being paid to perform research, apply a skill developed to make campus better or exercise leadership training as a resident assistant or in Student Government. 

I am particularly interested in the creation of a financial aid structure where everybody wins — students see their financial burden reduced while becoming deeply integrated into the academic and professional fabric of campus; the University produces exceptional graduates who bleed burnt orange; and I have far fewer students in my office talking about why they don’t have time to study for my class.

I believe my job of improving graduation rates is going to succeed with bite-sized initiatives that are real and positive to the individual student. And if things go as expected, my goal to increase the University’s four-year graduation rate to 70 percent by 2016 is a little more likely.

This redefinition of financial aid to influence post-matriculation behavior is such an example. Done well, it will have students waking up in four years realizing that graduation came easily and appropriately to personal and professional goals, and, in this case, with a lot less debt.

Dr. David Laude is the senior vice provost for enrollment and graduation management and a professor of chemistry.