What Is Work-Study? How It Works and Benefits Students

By Jamie Birt

Updated December 3, 2021 | Published April 23, 2019

Updated December 3, 2021

Published April 23, 2019

Jamie Birt is a career coach with 5+ years of experience helping job seekers navigate the job search through one-to-one coaching, webinars and events. She’s motivated by the mission to help people find fulfillment and belonging in their careers.

Scholarships, grants and student loans are all common ways to fund your college education. However, you may also be eligible for work-study as part of your college or graduate school financial aid package.

In this article, we explain what work-study is, the eligibility requirements, how to apply for FAFSA and some of the valuable benefits of enrolling.

Woman working on laptop

What is work-study?

Work-study is a financial aid program funded at the federal or state level that helps college and graduate students in financial need to get part-time jobs alongside their studies. The income earned from work-study can help with tuition, living expenses and other education-related costs.

It helps cover costs

Work-study is not designed to cover all of your college or graduate school-related costs. Rather, it is meant to be combined with several different resources, including your personal savings as well as grants, scholarships and student loans.

It's available to all types of students

Work-study is often associated with college students, but it is available for graduate and professional students as well. Work-study is available for both full-time and part-time students. These jobs are typically community-oriented or related to the student’s area of study.

It's a financial assistance program

Federal work-study is administered by participating colleges and universities. Check with the financial aid office at your school to learn more about whether they participate in federal or state work-study programs.

Related: Is Work-Study Worth It? Pros and Cons

Am I eligible for work-study?

First, to be eligible for work-study, you need to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Check the box that indicates you would like to be considered for work-study.

Fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible in the application process. Some types of aid are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so this will be to your advantage. Generally speaking, students who file their FAFSA early in the previous academic year (in January or February) are more likely to receive work-study aid.

Even if you receive work-study aid at the beginning of your school career, you are not guaranteed to receive it throughout your program of study. Rather, several factors will determine whether you are eligible for work-study aid on an annual basis.

These factors include how much total work-study funding your school receives in a given year, as well as whether you used the work-study funding allocated to you in the previous year, your financial need and your family’s income.

Related: How To Write a Work-Study Resume

How to apply for work-study aid

Selecting the work-study option only means that you will be considered for this form of aid. It does not guarantee that you will receive it as part of your financial aid award. However, you can decide whether or not to accept work-study aid if you do receive this kind of award.

You can expect to receive the results of your financial aid award application within a couple of months of submitting the FAFSA. The award will list the amounts of federal grants, loans and work-study for which you are eligible based on your financial need.

Once it has been determined that you are eligible for work-study, you are not guaranteed a work-study job on campus. Rather, you will still be responsible for finding an appropriate work-study job. Often this means submitting an application and interviewing for available positions.

While this may sound daunting, it is excellent practice for applying for full-time jobs upon graduation.

Your award letter will list the full amount of your total financial aid package allocated to work-study, but that does not mean you can automatically expect to receive that money. Instead, you will need to identify a work-study eligible job, and then work the required number of hours to receive that allotted amount.

Please note that not every college or university is a participant in this program, and your eligibility will be determined in part by whether your college or university participates in work-study. Make sure to check with the financial aid office at the schools where you are considering applying to see if they offer work-study opportunities.

Related: Best Jobs for College Students

How much does work-study pay?

On a work-study job, you can expect to earn at least the current federal minimum wage. However, you could be paid more than the minimum wage depending on the job that you do and the skills that are required for your position. Work-study jobs that require a higher level of skill or experience, such as research or lab assistantships, are likely to pay more than jobs like staffing the front desk of a dormitory or library, for example.

As an undergraduate student, you will be paid on an hourly basis for a work-study job. Graduate students on work-study can be paid either by the hour or on a salaried basis depending upon the nature of the role.

Your hourly work-study income will also depend on the type of job you do and the responsibilities, skills and qualifications required for the job, as well as state minimum wage requirements and any work-study policies that your school may have.

Your school will disburse paychecks at least once per month, if not more often. Your school should also pay you directly unless you request that they apply your earned work-study income directly toward institutional expenses like room and board, tuition and other fees.

Getting a direct paycheck means that, unlike scholarships and some other forms of aid, you can decide how to spend your work-study income. You may also request that your paycheck is sent to your bank account via direct deposit.

Unlike a regular job where you might be able to work as many hours as you like, the total amount allocated in your work-study package will determine how many hours you can work. In addition to your total allocated work-study aid, your college or university may take into account your academic progress and your class schedule each semester when determining your work schedule.

Finally, your weekly work schedule will be determined by the type of job you do and what your employer expects. Because work-study employers know that their employees are also busy with coursework and school-related obligations, most work-study positions are on a part-time basis, perhaps 10-20 hours per week.

Related: 6 Tips to Help You Find the Motivation to Study

a person holding a packet of papers smiles at a person talking to them while in a room of professionals

What kinds of jobs are included in work-study?

Many work-study positions are located on your university's campus, such as staffing a front desk, working in the library, performing administrative duties, working in the dining hall or research assistantships. On-campus jobs are especially convenient for full-time students because they do not require as much travel to get to the worksite.

Some work-study jobs even allow students to work on their homework when they have free time. You should always check with your employer before doing any unrelated activities at work. As you would when starting any new job, make sure to learn about your office's policies. If you don't know whether something is permitted in the workplace, make sure to ask. Dress appropriately for your position depending on your role and workplace environment.

Opportunities for off-campus work-study jobs include working with both nonprofit organizations and for-profit companies. Some work-study jobs are service-oriented and might consist of jobs like community child care or tutoring. Either way, work-study jobs are aimed toward emphasizing civic engagement and should be in the public interest. Other off-campus work-study jobs could include working in a hospital, a local government center, a public school or a public library.

Work-study jobs are also often related in some way to your course of study. For example, if you are studying music, you may be able to work in your school's music library, or as an engineering major you could work at a private civil engineering firm or as a materials science laboratory assistant on campus. Work-study jobs with for-profit organizations must typically be related to your area of study since these are not necessarily jobs that serve the public interest.

If you are eligible for work-study, your college or university should assist in finding both on-campus and off-campus jobs that qualify for their work-study program. Many schools have an online portal that lists relevant work-study job opportunities.

Related: The New Graduate's Guide to Job Search

What are the benefits of work-study?

If you need financial aid to begin or continue your school career, work-study is a great opportunity to fund your education. However, work-study also brings with it several additional benefits that you should keep in mind when considering all of your financial aid options.

Earnings do not count toward FAFSA

First, all of your earnings for federal work-study jobs do not count when you fill out your next FAFSA application. In contrast, earnings from regular jobs would count as part of your total income on the FAFSA.

Therefore, when submitting your FAFSA, you should ensure your application accurately reflects your earnings from the previous year of work-study. For assistance, you can contact your school's financial aid office. Many colleges and universities also send out an official notice to students who participate in a work-study program in the early spring as a reminder of their work-study earnings from the previous year.

Your previous year's work-study earnings should be reported on the FAFSA in two places. First, include your work-study earnings in your reported total income for the year. Second, report your total work-study earnings in the question that asks how much you earned specifically through work-study. Reporting your revenue in those places will ensure that your work-study earnings do not count in the calculation of your financial aid package as part of your total income.

Additionally, you will need to keep in mind that any income you earn through work-study is taxable.

Assistance is a good backup

You can always apply for work-study assistance and decide to decline it later on if you do not intend to use the award. However, many students take on substantial student debt to pay for educational expenses in college or graduate school. Former students can end up paying back these loans over the course of decades. Using work-study aid can help you to avoid accruing some of this debt.

For this reason, many college admissions advisors prefer that students accept work-study and any other source of aid, such as grants and scholarships, before turning to student loans.

Builds experience for your resume

Work-study is also a great way to build your resume. These types of jobs provide a variety of skills and could be an opportunity for you to acquire experience related to the type of career you would like to pursue once you have graduated. Many students graduate without significant work experience in their field, so having a work-study job on your resume can make you stand out from the crowd.

Employers can be more flexible in scheduling

Finally, if you have a work-study job, your employer will know that you are a part-time or full-time student with obligations outside of the workplace related to your studies. These employers are usually willing to be more flexible about scheduling and work demands. Work-study employers can often work with you to help balance your work against your academic obligations.

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