What Is Federal Work-Study?

FT Contributor  | 

Many people work while in college to help cover their education and living expenses. However, for many students, their jobs are part of their financial aid package and subsidized by the federal government.

Federal Work-Study is a program that provides jobs for students while they are in school Students are paid through their schools, and can opt to receive their pay directly, or have it applied to their outstanding balance for tuition, room and board, or other expenses.

Not all students are eligible for work-study, and need to be approved for the program and find their own jobs, but for those who can work, the program provides some financial support and the chance to gain some valuable work experience.

How Do You Qualify for Work-Study?

Eligibility for the Federal Work-Study program is based on the information you submit on your Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) each year. If you qualify, your eligibility for work, and how much you can earn, will appear on your notice of financial aid.

That said, to qualify for work-study, you must:

  • Be enrolled full- or part-time in an accredited school that is part of the Federal Work-Study program;
  • Be eligible for federal financial aid;
  • Have demonstrated financial need.

Generally speaking, the earlier you submit your FAFSA, the better your chance of getting a work-study award. However, receiving a work-study award doesn’t necessarily guarantee that you’ll receive a specific amount of money. You are responsible for finding a job, and depending on the pay and hours, you could ultimately earn less than you qualified for.

How Does Work-Study Affect Financial Aid?

Qualifying for work-study does not affect your eligibility for other forms of financial aid, including loans and grants. It does not need to be repaid. For most students, it represents a small part of the overall aid package.

In fact, the money earned from Federal Work-Study isn’t included in your FAFSA calculations, either. If you indicate that you earned money from work-study the previous year on the application, that amount is deducted from your overall income and not used to determine your financial need.

Is Work Study Enough to Pay for College?

Generally speaking, work-study is not enough to pay for all of your college costs, and is only one part of your overall financial aid package. Work-study awards are based on how much funding the school receives from the government, how much money it has available in its own coffers, and the number of students with demonstrated need, as well as their own financial aid package policies.

Student work-study jobs are part-time positions, and most people work 10 to 20 hours per week at the most during the school year. Although you can choose to put your earnings toward tuition or room and board, the purpose of work-study is to help you cover your day-to-day living expenses while you’re in school.

What Types of Jobs Are Available?

Students who qualify for work-study are responsible for finding their own jobs. The majority of work-study positions are on-campus jobs, often working in administrative offices, food service, or library roles. In some schools, students may be able to work as tutors or teaching assistants as part of the work-study program.

In most cases, department heads and faculty submit requests for work-study funds before the start of the semester or academic year, which are approved based on available funds. Available positions then vary, and positions aren’t always guaranteed from semester to semester.

Some students may qualify for off-campus work-study jobs. Typically, these positions are with nonprofit, research  or community agencies that have partnered with the school to provide these jobs. Typically, for an off-campus position, the job duties must pertain to the student’s major or program of study. For example, those studying to become teachers may be able to work at a school or daycare center as an assistant.

How Much Does Work-Study Pay?

Work-study jobs must pay at least minimum wage. However, that wage varies, as employers must pay the highest minimum wage as determined by federal, state, or local guidelines. For example, although the federal minimum wage is $7.25 per hour, students working in states with a higher wage will earn the state minimum wage. That means that a student in Louisiana earns $7.25 per hour, while students in Massachusetts earn $12.75 per hour.

Wages vary by job, as well. Some jobs may pay more; for example, a research assistant will likely earn a higher hourly wage than a library aide. Schools are required to pay students at least monthly, and while undergraduates can only be paid hourly, graduate students may fill salaried positions. How much you may earn as an individual depends in large part on when you apply for aid, your total financial need, and how much money your school has to award.  

Is Work-Study Worth It?

The question of whether work-study is worth it depends in large part on the individual student and their position. Again, the funds are meant as a supplement to help cover daily expenses, and not necessarily for tuition costs, so it’s important to keep expectations in check.

Some students may find it difficult to manage working and school work. In fact, working too many hours while attending school has a significant effect on academic performance and graduation rates. Studies reveal, though, that working while in school can also have a positive impact on performance. Managing school and a job helps students learn time management skills and provides them with structure, while gaining work experience is beneficial to their future job hunt.

Working can also help students get better grades. Research indicates that students who work 20 hours or less per week have higher average GPAs (3.13) than those who don’t work (3.04). However, working more than 20 hours per week can be detrimental to grades.

Ultimately, the decision to accept work-study falls to the individual student. Earning some extra cash along with the benefits of structure and work experience may be enough to compel some students to work and go to school. For others, balancing all of the responsibilities could prove too much, and finding other means to fund their college education may be a better option.


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