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What Is Work-Study in College and How Does It Work?

What Is Work-Study in College and How Does It Work?
Rebecca Safier
Rebecca SafierUpdated December 19, 2022
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The federal work-study program helps college and graduate students with financial need make a part-time income while in school. If you qualify for work-study, you could find a job that is related to your course of study or involves community service. By pursuing a work-study job, you could earn money that helps cover your living expenses or offset the cost of tuition. Here’s more about how it works, including:
  • Who’s eligible for work-study
  • How to apply for work-study
  • Pros and cons of work-study
  • What are job options for work-study

What Is Work-Study?

If you’re wondering what is work study in college, it’s a program that provides part-time jobs to undergraduate and graduate students with demonstrated financial need. The Department of Education provides the federal work-study program, though some states offer work-study programs, as well. Your financial aid award letter will indicate whether you qualify for federal work-study. If you do, it’s up to you to search and apply for work-study jobs through your school. Even if you’re eligible for work-study, you’re not necessarily guaranteed a job — you’ll still need to put in some legwork and get hired. With a work-study job, you’ll earn at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, though some positions pay more. You can often find a job that’s related to your course of study or contributes to your community. Recommended: Pros and Cons of Student Loan Refinancing

Eligibility for Work-Study

There are a few eligibility requirements for the work-study program. For one, you must demonstrate financial need, which is determined based on the information you provide on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). What is FAFSA? It’s a form students (prospective and current) fill out to see what financial aid they are eligible for. You also must attend a school that participates in the work-study program. According to the Department of Education, over 3,400 schools across the country take part. Finally, you can’t make more than the amount designated by your work-study award. Note that undergraduate, graduate, and professional students are all eligible, and you can attend school either part-time or full-time. Recommended: How to Refinance Student Loans

How to Apply for Work-Study

If you’re interested in receiving a work-study award, here are the steps you need to take to apply. 

Submit the FAFSA

To be considered for work-study — and for federal financial aid in general — you’ll need to submit the FAFSA. This free form becomes available on Oct. 1 every year. Because aid is limited, it’s a good idea to submit it as soon as possible. The FAFSA asks for your personal and financial information. If you’re a dependent student, your parents or guardians will provide their financial details.Recommended: What Is Need-Based Financial Aid?

Opt In for Work-Study

As you’re filling out the FAFSA, you’ll see a question that asks, “Are you interested in being considered for work-study?” Make sure to select “Yes” so you don’t miss out. Although opting in won’t guarantee you a work-study award, it will put you in the running. 

Send Your Application

Once you’ve filled everything in and double-checked your information, you can submit the FAFSA. After you submit this form, you’ll receive a Student Aid Report that summarizes your information and estimates your eligibility for federal student loans and Pell Grants. As for whether you’ve received a work-study award, you’ll have to wait for your financial aid award letter from your school. If you’re a new college student, you can expect to receive this letter at the same time as or shortly after you get your college acceptance letter. Recommended: Refinancing Student Loans With a Low Income

Reapply Every Year

The information you provide on the FAFSA only applies to a single school year — you’ll need to resubmit the FAFSA for every year you want to receive aid, including work-study. As a sophomore and beyond, you can sign into your account on the Federal Student Aid website and submit a renewal FAFSA. This renewal FAFSA might take you less time to complete than your first FAFSA did, since it will be auto-filled with the information you provided the previous year. Recommended: Can You Refinance Federal Student Loans? 

4 Benefits of Work-Study

There are several benefits to receiving a work-study award as a college or graduate student. 

1. Funds for Your Education

First, a work-study award guarantees your eligibility for a certain amount of income every year. As long as you get a job and work the required hours, you can earn up to your maximum award. While this income might not make a huge dent in your tuition bills, it could help cover living expenses. By earning some money, you also might be able to borrow less in student loans. 

2. Complement Your Field of Study 

The federal work-study program encourages students to engage in work related to their field of study or community service. If you’re able to snag a relevant job, you could apply what you’re learning outside the classroom and gain a new perspective on your studies. Plus, you might engage in service work that benefits your community. 

3. Work Exposure/Job Experience

Getting a work-study job can also give you job experience, which can help you clarify your career goals and start building your resume. When you’re searching for a job after graduation, you can talk about your employment with a prospective hiring manager.Recommended: When Do You Start Paying Student Loans?

4. Build Network

Finally, working part-time could help you grow your network outside of your fellow students. You might work with a professor, which could lead to additional research projects, or you could join a nonprofit agency and connect with colleagues there. Making connections in your field could go a long way toward helping you get a full-time job after graduation. 

4 Disadvantages of Work-Study

While there are a number of benefits to work-study, there are also some potential disadvantages to consider. Recommended: Private vs. Federal Student Loans: The Complete Guide

1. Pay Might Be Low

As mentioned, work-study jobs must pay at least federal minimum wage, but they may or may not pay higher. It is possible that you could find a job independently that earns you an even higher wage than your work-study opportunity. 

2. Limited Work Hours

You can’t earn more than the amount indicated by your work-study award, which could be limiting if you have more availability. While an outside job might let you pick up extra shifts, a work-study job has more restrictions. 

3. You Might Not Get the Job You Want 

Although work-study can help you get your foot in the door for on-campus and off-campus jobs, it doesn’t guarantee you a position. You’ll still need to search through opportunities, apply, and get hired. The more appealing jobs tend to get scooped up fast, potentially leaving you with a job you don’t particularly want. 

4. Could Be Stressful

Working while you’re studying for your degree could be stressful. If you’re struggling to balance work with your studies, it might be better to turn down work-study so you can focus your time and energy on earning your degree. Recommended: What Are Credit Hours and Why Are They Important?

Job Options for Work-Study

How does work-study work in terms of finding a gig? There are a variety of work-study jobs available on- and off-campus. Here are some examples:

Tutoring Positions

You might find a work-study job tutoring a younger student or fellow college student. If you enjoy teaching, search for an opportunity related to your field of study. 

Research Labs

The work-study program can hook you up with work in a research lab. Whether you study biology, chemistry, or another discipline that involves lab work, keep an eye out for roles that would give you hands-on experience. 

Library Roles

Many colleges offer work-study gigs in the college library. When you’re not helping students or organizing bookshelves, you might get quiet time to catch up on schoolwork. 

Computer Lab Roles

If you have tech skills, you might find a role troubleshooting computer issues in a computer lab. There might also be administrative positions in a computer lab or other office on campus. 

Off-Campus Jobs

Work-study jobs can also be off campus. If you head off campus, you might find a role in a private nonprofit organization or a public agency that contributes to the public interest. 

The Takeaway

If you qualify, the work-study program can help you find engaging work that complements your field of study or provides service to your community. Plus, you’ll earn money that you can use to pay for your daily expenses. At the same time, you might be able to snag a job with higher pay on your own. Or you might choose not to work so you can focus all your time and energy on your studies. Whether you decide to work part-time or not, be cautious about taking on more student loans than you need. If you over-borrow, you could end up with burdensome debt after graduation. 

3 Student Loan Tips

  1. Once the pandemic-related pause on federal student loan payments ends, going back to making payments may be hard on budgets. One solution is to refinance to a lower interest rate, longer loan term, or both, depending on your situation. (The tradeoff is that you’ll be forfeiting federal benefits such as repayment programs.) Find and compare your student loan refinance options.
  2. Paying extra each month on your student loan can reduce the interest you pay and so lower your total loan cost over time. (The law prohibits prepayment penalties on federal or private student loans.)
  3. If you teach full-time for five complete and consecutive academic years in a low-income school, you may be eligible for federal student loan forgiveness.

Frequently Asked Questions

How do you get paid during work-study?
How much will I be paid during my work-study period?
Are work-study jobs on or off-campus?
How will work-study not affect my academic performance?
Photo credit: iStock/Kerkez

About the Author

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier

Rebecca Safier has nearly a decade of experience writing about personal finance. Formerly a senior writer with LendingTree and Student Loan Hero, she specializes in student loans, financial aid, and personal loans. She is certified as a student loan counselor with the National Association of Certified Credit Counselors (NACCC).
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