Cheryl Oldham Cheryl Oldham
Senior Vice President, U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation
Vice President, Education & Workforce Policy, U.S. Chamber of Commerce


June 19, 2019


Though not widely known outside of the education community, the Department of Education recently released information about a new pilot for institutions willing to reimagine their Federal Work Study (FWS) programs. Given the pilot’s emphasis on increased industry engagement in FWS, it is imperative that the business community be informed about the pilot and reach out to their education partners to leverage this pioneering opportunity to benefit our nation’s students.

According to the Federal Register’s post on May 23, 2019, about the Experimental Sites Initiative (ESI), the Secretary of Education will grant waivers to “allow a limited number of institutions to participate in experiments to test alternative methods of administering the title IV, HEA [sic: Higher Education Act] programs.”

The ESI speaks to the national rhetoric of the need to ensure investments—both in money and time—in a college degree result in student success, including a smooth transition into the workforce. The Department of Ed is interested in trialing changes that aim to “increase partnerships between institutions and industry, improve student retention and completion, reduce student debt levels, and yield strong post-graduation employment outcomes.”

These are critically important outcomes that the public has made clear are top of mind when considering the value of a college degree.

Attempting to Change the Status Quo

As FWS currently stands, there are rather stringent limitations on the portion of funding, hours, and program-related work (e.g., student teaching, clinical rotations) that FWS students are allowed to conduct with private-sector companies. Instead, most FWS students work for on-campus offices, such as libraries, athletic centers, and support offices— most commonly with very limited opportunities to explore work experiences related to their program of study or linked to jobs they may seek after graduation.

The immediate response from colleges and universities is that these jobs are critical to the operations of their institutions.

Point taken and is valid.

But providing additional opportunities to expose students to careers that could result in a more seamless transition to the workplace should be the focus. It could mean higher retention and completion rates, lower student debt rates, lower unemployment and underemployment rates for college grads, increased diversity in the workplace, and ultimately, optimal student success.

Particularly for low-income students who do not always get to take advantage of work-based learning experiences, this kind of offering could be transformational.

Through the Chamber Foundation’s Talent Pipeline Management® initiative, employers across the country are more effectively managing their relationships with education and training partners, working collaboratively to more clearly communicate the skills needs of their most in-demand jobs. The ESI serves as a leading opportunity to test out solutions that have been co-designed by the business and education communities.

What will it take to launch these pilot sites successfully?

The business community’s leadership and engagement.

With a deadline of July 8, institutions and industry partners do not have a lot of time to organize and respond but here three reasons institutions—and business leaders in their communities—should consider participating:

  1. First and foremost, increased career exposure and work-based learning experiences linked to their programs of study are game-changers for students. A Gallup-Purdue University study of college graduates finds that the odds of being engaged at work are two times higher if the student had an internship or job that allowed them to apply what they learned in the classroom.
  2. Institutions win by demonstrating to current and prospective students effective partnerships with industry. With so many Americans questioning the value of a college degree, colleges and universities have an opportunity to showcase their dedication to student success beyond graduation rates. Eighty-five percent of college freshmen consider getting a better job a very important reason to attend college.
  3. Employers large and small benefit from involving young adult (16 – 24) workers.Benefits include but are not limited to creating a pipeline of talent, filling critical skills gaps, increasing workforce diversity that enables greater customer connection, spurring innovation.

We encourage all engaged businesses who are willing to be good stewards of this opportunity and effective partners to reach out to educational institutions with whom they partner. Chances like this are few and far between…and will become completely obsolete if limited interest prevails innovative thinking.

About the authors

Cheryl Oldham

Cheryl Oldham

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