August 29, 2012

After Financial Aid Changes, Longer Hours Loom for Student Workers

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Students with work-study financial aid packages will be expected to contribute 25 percent more in annual wages, raising the annual contribution per student from $2,000 to $2,500 in accordance with reductions to Cornell’s financial aid program set to begin in Fall 2013.

For students who are required to work to contribute wages to their financial aid packages, the administration had maintained an expected contribution of $2,000 for nearly 20 years, despite a rising minimum wage, according to Thomas Keane, director of financial aid for scholarships and policy analysis. An increase in wages over the last two decades has lowered the number of hours students needed to work to earn $2,000, Keane said.

At the current minimum wage, $7.25 per hour, a student needs to work about 275 hours during the academic year — an average of about 9.2 hours a week — in order to earn a total $2,000 for the year. The increased work expectation will raise the number of hours students need to work to 11.4 hours per week. At the same minimum wage, this increase translates into an additional 2.2 hours of work per week, according to Keane.

“We felt that two hours a week wasn’t a huge increase,” he said.

But Garrett Jancich ’15, who has a work-study component in his financial aid package, said 2.2 hours can make a big difference in a busy student’s schedule. Janich said he currently balances a 21-credit course load and several extracurricular activities with his work.

Ana Nino ’15 also voiced concerns about the increased work expectation, saying she was fearful that her academics would take a hit.

“I enjoy working. It forces me to manage my time,” she said. “However, I don’t want it to dominate my school life and I don’t want to feel so consumed by work that it harms my grades and takes away from my study time.”

Despite some students’ concerns about what these changes will mean for them and for future Cornel­lians, the new work-study expectation falls at the median in comparison to other colleges and universities in the U.S., according to Keane. The median work study contribution for first-year college students at Cornell and 30 other colleges is $2,500, Keane said.

Furthermore, Keane noted that the University may also be looking to adjust its wage scale — a scale that has not been modified at Cornell in the last five years — in a continued effort to stay ahead of the federal minimum wage. An increase in wages down the line could potentially reduce the number of hours future students will need to work in order to earn $2,500 each year, Keane said, noting that the scale had not been modified in five years.

The reductions to financial aid at Cornell, including the decision to eliminate loan-free aid packages to all students whose parents make under $75,000 a year, come after the financial aid program was altered in 2008 in an effort to decrease the loan burden of Cornell graduates. According to Keane, the initial projected cost of the 2008 adjustments was $20 million a year. But they ultimately cost the University $32 million, he said — more than 50 percent higher than the administration had predicted.

Keane said the University based the alterations to its financial aid program on the assumption that the endowment would continue to grow at the same rate that it had been prior to 2008. But the economic downturn in 2008 restricted the available resources Cornell could use to pay for the changes.

While students expressed the fear that an increased work expectation will pose a challenge to new Cornellians, some maintained that the quality of Cornell’s financial aid program was one of the reasons why they chose to come to Cornell.

“Cornell University and its alumni have been tremendously gracious to myself, my family and many of my peers,” Eva Johnson ’15 said. “But without the outstanding financial aid program, I wouldn’t be able to attend this University.”

Original Author: Margaret Yoder