Money spread thin

The maximum work-study award fell this year in an effort to get more students to utilize the federally funded programs that let people work on campus in exchange for financial aid. The move, which lowered the award from $4,500 to $3,000, was made to allow Portland State to fully allocate its entire package of $1.2 million.

“Most schools are having the same problem we’re having – just getting the money spent,” said Ken McGhee, the director of financial aid at Portland State.

Many students who had qualified for the full amount last year were surprised this year when their award dropped. McGhee said this was simply part of the plan to dole out Portland State’s entire package to the largest amount of students in need.

“I got the max last year,” said Philip Bringhurst, a former work-study student who still works in the library stacks as a regular wage earner. “I didn’t get any this year.”

Bringhurst, a senior in business and marketing, said he is lucky to have a job that kept him on after his work-study was cut.

Next to him was Mike Caton, another stacks worker.

“I don’t know. I had it, then I didn’t,” he said. Some of his grants were cut along with his work-study. Neither of the two could think of a reason why their awards packages were cut – they made the same amount of money as the year before and applied at the same time of the year – other than it was “the luck of the draw.”

Work-study is part of the federal aid program that combines grants and loans to create a package aimed at helping students get through college. The work-study program allots a certain amount of money for each student that can be obtained by working for the university. Both the federal government and Portland State pay the student’s wages – the government pays 90 percent of the wages and university pays the rest. The money the student earns is not a loan, so it does not have to be paid back.

But the spreading of the wealth does not seem to be working out as McGhee had planned it. In 2004-05, 441 students accepted federal work-study awards for the year. Just 431 students have accepted awards this year. McGhee points out that there will be new awards for winter, spring and summer terms. But with students like Bringhurst and Caton, eligible students who did not receive any work-study money at all, some wonder to whom the awards will go.

Le Kien, the stacks student supervisor, said the new system “balances out.” She gets more work-study students, but each one has a smaller package.

“Some students work real hard and are good workers,” Kien said. “But they run out of [work-study] so quick and I have to let them go.”

Kien at first did not like the new, smaller awards because they forced her to train more students to do the job, but now she does not prefer one way to the other.

“I wouldn’t complain,” she said.

According McGhee, students who use their entire award will likely be given more.

“I don’t see any reason why a person would be denied” additional work-study if they requested it, McGhee said.

To qualify for work-study, one must be eligible for and fill out the FAFSA, the free application for federal student aid.

“We usually start awarding in February or March,” McGhee said. “But you don’t really know who’s going to accept it.”

Students are not officially students until the end of the fourth week of classes, so if a student is awarded work-study in February, the financial aid department does not know if that person is entitled to use it until almost November of that same year.

“That’s a lot of guesstimate, estimate – however you want to put it,” McGhee said.

Even then, not all the awards are fully used. But it is not a complete wash for the university. The money that does not get spent goes into the SEOG, a grant fund for students in need.

The jobs of work-study vary greatly, from on-campus to off and from “routine, non-complex” work to professional. The pay varies greatly as well, from $7.25 to $12.50 an hour. In the program, a student can do a diversity of tasks. Some work-study students tutor elementary school kids, others answer phones. Some work in laboratories while others simply man the door of a computer lab. These students help the university to run, all due to federal spending at the university.

However, there has yet to be a federal education bill for this fiscal year, a year that started almost four months ago. The most recent incarnation of one, with deep cuts to most parts of federal student aid, was on its way to approval before Senate Democrats sent it back to the House of Representatives right before the new year.

That bill did not cut work-study and kept it funded at $990.3 million, the 2005 level.

The Senate originally passed the bill 51-50 during its final session of 2005. Vice President Dick Cheney cut a trip to the Middle East short to return to Washington, D.C., and cast the tie-breaking vote.

However, Democratic Sen. Kent Conrad of North Dakota had two provisions removed from the bill, requiring it to be sent back to the House for another vote, effectively blocking the issue from being decided in 2005. The House is tentatively scheduled to vote on the legislation Feb. 1.

The battle in the Senate was just the latest chapter in over two months of political jockeying as congressional Republican leaders attempt to push through budget-cutting legislation that is unanimously opposed by Democrats and tepidly supported at best by many moderate Republicans.

The House held a midnight session in November in which their version of the bill passed by just two votes, 217-215. But the bill’s arrival back in the Senate only further vexed its supporters, as some Republican senators who had previously supported the bill, including Gordon Smith of Oregon, opposed some provisions included in the House version.

“I just want my grants back,” said library stacker Caton.