School of Education News

Testimony by UW’s Goldrick-Rab inspires Baldwin’s Working Student Act

September 12, 2014
by Todd Finkelmeyer

In an effort to address college affordability and student loan debt, U.S. Sen. Tammy Baldwin has introduced a bill aimed at reducing the financial penalty students who work incur while pursuing a higher education.

And Baldwin on Friday, Sept. 12, highlighted the key contributions of UW-Madison’s Sara Goldrick-Rab in helping to bring about the Working Student Act.

"The research conducted by Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab and the Wisconsin HOPE Lab has been a tremendous resource in helping me better understand the challenges students face in getting a fair shot at a college education, and what steps Congress can take to address them," says Baldwin. "Dr. Goldrick-Rab's research and testimony before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee last year inspired me to introduce legislation to help working students and she was a trusted partner in developing the Working Student Act."

Sara Goldrick-Rab
Goldrick-Rab is a professor of educational policy studies and sociology, and is the director and founder of the Wisconsin HOPE Lab, which was launched earlier this year and is the only laboratory in the nation dedicated to translational research for improving equitable outcomes in postsecondary education. The HOPE Lab, which is an acronym for Harvesting Opportunities for Postsecondary Education -- is housed within UW-Madison’s School of Education.

"Over the last 15 years, my research has led me to meet many economically disadvantaged students who work very hard to pay for college, only to find that they are penalized for that work when it comes to their financial aid,” says Goldrick-Rab. “It is a terrible experience that leads them to feel betrayed, and often contributes to their decision to leave college. The Working Student Act is a long overdue step to solving this problem, enabling more students to make ends meet and complete their college education. I'm grateful to Senator Baldwin for taking this action."

Currently, students who work while attending college are often eligible for less financial aid due to their work income. Baldwin’s Working Student Act increases the amount students that must work while in college can earn without that income counting against them in accessing need-based federal financial aid, including Pell Grants. This legislation is co-sponsored by Sen. Tim Kaine, with Baldwin’s office announcing in a news release that the bill is being supported by UW-Madison, the Wisconsin Technical College System, the National Education Association, and the Wisconsin Education Association Council, among others.

Sara Goldrick-Rab testifying before a U.S. Senate committeeIn April 2013, Goldrick-Rab testified before the U.S. Senate’s Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions during a hearing on “The Challenge of College Affordability: The Student Lens.”

During this testimony, Goldrick-Rab noted: "Americans are not afraid to work for what they need, and undergraduates are no exception. The problem is that today, it is no longer possible to cover all of the costs of college while working part-time. Covering those remaining costs at a public university would require a student to work at least 35 hours a week, 52 weeks a year at the federal minimum wage.”

She continued: “The work penalty contained in the federal needs analysis means that those earnings would quickly diminish her access to aid, causing her to work even more. Such extensive work hours would almost certainly compromise her chances of completing college, particularly in a timely fashion, rendering all of that effort far less meaningful.”

Goldrick-Rab then went on to make the following recommendation in response to this problem: "Support students who work hard and keep their student debt low by expanding the income protection allowance and reducing the assessment rate on student earnings. Students work while attending school because they need the money; removing their financial aid based on those earnings creates perverse incentives and encourages them to take on more debt. This especially hurts single parents pursuing college degrees. Raising the Income Protection Allowance (IPA) by $2,000 will help ensure that more of their earnings are used to prevent additional debt, and lowering the assessment rate from 50 percent to 40 percent will further promote that goal."

It was this testimony, Goldrick-Rab explains, that caught the attention of Baldwin and helped inspire the proposed bill. Over the coming year Goldrick-Rab met once with Baldwin’s team in Washington, D.C., and reviewed several drafts of the legislation.

The Working Student Act provides for a proportional increase of 35 percent to the IPA for award year 2014-15 for each type of student: dependent, independent with no spouse, and independent student with a spouse. Each following year would be indexed to inflation, as the IPA is currently under the Higher Education Act of 1965. Goldrick-Rab says this legislation would, for example, immediately allow a working single parent with two children to earn approximately $10,000 more in income without facing a reduction in her Federal financial aid.

Goldrick-Rab also is a Senior Scholar at the Wisconsin Center for the Advancement of Postsecondary Education and an affiliate of the Institute for Research on Poverty, Center for Financial Security, La Follette School of Public Affairs, and the Wisconsin Center for Education Research.

On Friday, Baldwin’s office put out a news release reporting that the senator had introduced two bills to address the larger issue of student debt and college affordability.

More information on the Working Student Act can be found here.

More information on the CTE Opportunity Act can be found here.

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