Student Achievement

Biden Administration Wants College Students to Step In as K-12 Tutors

By Libby Stanford — May 10, 2023 5 min read
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Colleges and universities should deploy more of their own students as paid tutors in local schools, the Biden administration said Wednesday.

In a “dear colleague” letter, the U.S. Department of Education encouraged colleges and universities to use Federal Work-Study Program funds to pay their students so they can serve as mentors, tutors, student success coaches, and wraparound student support coordinators for school-age children in their communities. The administration hopes the strategy can help K-12 districts that are struggling to find enough people to help their students catch up from a pandemic-induced academic slide.

Through the work-study program, college students who are struggling to afford the cost of school can work part-time jobs. The Biden administration is pushing colleges to allow more students to work these jobs off campus to help districts use tutoring to aid their students’ academic recovery.

So far, 26 colleges and universities have committed to using the work-study funding or other resources to increase the number of their students working as mentors and tutors in classrooms.

The May 10 letter comes nearly a year after the Education Department announced the National Partnership for Student Success, an initiative to supply 250,000 tutors and mentors to American schools through partnerships with AmeriCorps and the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University. Since the initiative was announced last July, the number of organizations committed has grown from 75 to nearly 130, according to the letter.

“By serving as tutors and mentors, college students can make a positive difference in the lives of children and youth, and ultimately, it is in the best interests of our colleges and universities to help accelerate academic recovery in our public elementary and secondary schools,” Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said in a statement.

A win-win for schools and universities

The department called on colleges and universities to set a goal of either using at least 15 percent of their work-study funds to pay college students employed in community service activities including tutoring, or using other means to significantly increase the number of college students taking on tutoring and mentoring roles at schools.

The colleges and universities should also set a goal of sharing data with the National Partnership on Student Success on the number of college students serving in mentoring and tutoring roles, the letter said.

The strategy would be a win-win for K-12 schools and universities, said Robert Balfanz, a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Education and director of the university’s Everyone Graduates Center. The university is one of the 26 that have already committed to using the work-study program to supply more support to schools.

Johns Hopkins and the other 25 universities “saw it as both a benefit to their community and also a benefit to their students, giving them both things that the students found rewarding but also in a way that could build the skills of those students,” Balfanz said. “Maybe they’ll be interested in teaching out of this or counseling, and this gives them an initial actual experience doing that.”

Around 600,000 students use the work-study program each year, he said.

“We recognized that we had to look for places where we could find big numbers of people,” Balfanz said. “Sure, you can put out a call for volunteers, but you get them in ones, twos, fives, and tens, but to make a difference locally you need like 50 or 100 or 150.”

A continued push for tutors

Tutoring has become a popular academic recovery strategy following the COVID-19 pandemic. In a December 2022 Institute for Education Sciences survey, 37 percent of schools reported providing high-dosage tutoring, 59 percent reported providing standard tutoring, and 22 percent reported providing self-paced tutoring to students.

That’s largely because it works. Researchers, including Balfanz, widely recognize that high-dosage tutoring given more than 3 days a week with a consistent tutor can greatly improve students’ learning.

“Many kids suffered different levels of learning loss or instructional interruption during the pandemic, and then continuing chronic absenteeism compounds that,” Balfanz said. “In a way, it’s more efficient if you can target that with tutoring because you customize more to what the kids actually need.”

But staffing and funding remain a significant challenge for districts, especially as they prepare for COVID-19 relief funds to dry up. Of the schools that reported to IES that they were providing tutoring, 40 percent said they cannot find staff to support their tutoring and 49 percent said there is a lack of funding to support tutoring.

The work-study program is one tool that colleges and universities can use to help districts overcome that barrier, the dear colleague letter said.

The department pointed to four examples of university programs that have already provided mentors and tutors to schools using the work-study program. Jumpstart, the preschool organization, uses work-study funds to send college students to serve as tutors in preschool programs through its College Corps program.

New York University, Arizona State University, and the University of Memphis all also use federal funds to send college students to tutor and mentor elementary, middle, and high school students.

Other resources for schools

The Education Department encouraged school districts to seek out partnerships with colleges and universities to increase the supply of tutors, and highlighted other resources schools can use to hire more mentors and tutors.

For example, schools can use COVID-19 relief funding to cover the cost of tutors. They can also use grant funding from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which aims to establish safer and healthier learning environments, to hire new staff to support wraparound services for students, such as health care, mental health counseling, and social services.

In addition to the dear colleague letter, the National Partnership for Student Success has released a set of standards schools can use to strengthen outside partnerships, a guide for states creating partnerships with outside organizations, and a toolkit to help districts develop partnerships for student support.

Ultimately, the best thing a district can do is reach out to the colleges and universities in their area, Balfanz said.

K-12 and higher education institutions “both can help each other,” he said. “The kids go through both parts of that pipeline, but those two parts of the pipeline don’t talk to each other. The more we can get the local dialogue going about both what the K-12 needs are and the higher ed. capacities are to help, the better we’ll be.”


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