Most people don’t like giving money to slackers. After all, people who work hard for their money don’t want to hand it over to people who aren’t working so hard—a very reasonable position to take. But the challenge is defining what “hard working” actually means, particularly as individuals’ definitions may differ and it is generally difficult or expensive to observe someone’s effort level. (I’m not the only academic to note this challenge.) A classic example of struggling to define hard work comes from the welfare reform debates of the 1980s and 1990s (which eventually resulted in major welfare reform in 1996) and has clear linkages to higher education debates.
Similar to the famous “welfare queen” example that Ronald Reagan first used in 1976 of a woman who defrauded the federal welfare system, there have been concerns about “Pell runners”—people who go from college to college in an effort to defraud taxpayers instead of get an education—for years. While the U.S. Department of Education estimates that 2.5% of Pell dollars are improperly spent (either due to fraud or errors by the college or the federal government), there are concerns that students are not putting in sufficient effort to get support from the federal government. In 2011, then-Representative Denny Rehberg (R-MT) called the Pell program “the welfare of the 21st century,” a concern shared by some who point to the billions of dollars each year going to students who do not graduate (although barriers to graduation may include family or financial issues in addition to academic success or work ethic).
Politicians supporting increased funding for financially needy students have taken great care to explain how their plan helps “hard working” students in an effort to gain political support. For example, President Obama and the White House communications team have repeatedly referred to “hard working” students in describing the administration’s plans for tuition-free community college and other proposals for reform. Obama’s tuition-free community college proposal defines “hard working” as having a 2.5 GPA, enrolled half-time, and making satisfactory progress toward a degree. These requirements are tighter than the Pell Grant’s rules, which require a 2.0 GPA and satisfactory academic progress with no enrollment intensity requirement. Last week, two Democrats on the House Education and the Workforce Committee referred to current Pell recipients as “hard working” in their appeal to use a $7.8 billion surplus in the Pell program to increase awards to current students.
As in most cases in life, it’s worth reading the fine print to see exactly who politicians, advocates, or others consider to be “hard working” students. The term sounds really good, but be wary of people defining the term in such a way that it aligns with their political priorities. I don’t have a perfect definition of what it means to be hard working in college, so I would love your suggestions in the comments section below.