What Is Work-Study? Your Top Questions, Answered

Work-study programs are a great way for you to get paid in college while gaining valuable career skills. Here are the answers to your biggest questions.

When Katie Walker was a freshman at Boston University, she found a work-study position she loved so much that she stayed with it throughout her time in college. She worked as an English-language tutor for speakers of other languages at an off-campus literacy program center. The job provided transportation and extra training and paid $16 per hour (the highest-paying work-study job the University offered). “It was a pretty awesome gig, and I learned so much about the experience of being an English learner in the US,” Walker says. Besides being rewarding work, the job helped her meet peers outside her science department and earn money for college costs. If this experience has you interested and makes you wonder what exactly work-study is and how it can benefit you, we’ll walk you through it.

What is work-study?

A work-study position is a type of part-time job—either on campus or off campus with approved employers in community service (like Walker’s job)—that’s available to undergraduate and graduate students who file the FAFSA. The goal is for you to be a student first and employee second, so work-study jobs are purposely flexible to fit your class schedule, and ideally you’ll work no more than 10–15 hours per week.

Unlike regular campus employment, work-study is a type of financial aid and is primarily funded through the federal work-study program or a state program. Colorado, Florida, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Washington have state work-study programs with funding generally limited to state residents, but non-resident students attending college in these states are still eligible for federal and even institutional work-study.

Because work-study programs are campus based, every college will operate a bit differently, says Kevin Towns, Director of Financial Aid at North Central College in Illinois. Of nearly 3,400 participating institutions, every college will individually determine its work-study allocation, with student awards tending to range from $1,000–$5,000 per year. Colleges kick in matching funds, and each institution determines how they provide the positions to students.

Related: What Is Work-Study and How Do I Find a Position?

What type of job can I get?

Work-study positions vary, but you’re encouraged to find work in something related to your major if you can. For example, academic departments hire research and lab assistants. You might answer phones in the financial aid office, staff the library circulation desk or fitness center, or work off campus with a community service organization like Walker did. You may lead campus student tours, tutor in the writing or math center, or work in food services. The possibilities are vast; just make sure it’s something you enjoy and is beneficial to your studies.

How do I get work-study and who qualifies?

When you file the FAFSA, be sure to check the work-study box to indicate your interest. Colleges determine your work-study wages as part of your financial aid package. The amount you get depends on the college’s cost of attendance (COA), your demonstrated need, and when you file your FAFSA (file early!). For example, you could qualify for work-study at a private college with a high COA and not qualify at a cheaper public university due to no demonstrated need. Work-study is limited, so not all eligible students will receive it.

If you don’t receive it, it’s worth asking your financial aid office about it. It’s possible a federal subsidized student loan covered your demonstrated need, as subsidized loans are considered need-based financial aid. If you want work-study, the financial aid office might be able to reduce your subsidized loan so you qualify. You can still keep the unsubsidized loan because all students are eligible for that regardless of qualifying for work-study, Towns says. And if work-study doesn’t pan out, try looking for a non-work-study job.

Note: Students with undocumented status don’t qualify for federal aid but may qualify for non-federal work-study through institutional or state financial aid programs.

Can I still get a campus job if I’m not eligible for work-study?

Yes—in most cases! Many students don’t qualify for work-study at all. Campuses will often have non-work-study jobs too. “The employment opportunities on campus may vary based on if a student qualifies for work-study or not,” Towns says. Every college is different. At Western Washington University, 75% of campus jobs are open to all students, while just 25% are designated as work-study.

Related: 7 On-Campus Jobs You Really Want

Is work-study different from a regular campus job?

Yes, work-study does offer some benefits that make it different from any other campus job and a little more desirable.  

An expanded job list

The work-study job list can often be more expansive than the general campus job list at some colleges, says Shannon Vasconcelos, a private financial aid advisor at Bright Horizons College Coach.  For instance, your academic department or a community organization in your field of interest might only hire work-study students.

Social and professional connections

Work-study also offers ways to get involved and get connected. “It’s another way to make connections on campus, start making friends, and get to know adults who can look out for you,” Vasconcelos says. Professionally, it also boosts your résumé. “Employers want students who have work experiences,” Towns says. “Work-study provides opportunities to get that experience in a space that still accommodates for being a student first.” If you’re concerned about a job interfering with your classes, research shows that students who work part-time perform slightly better academically. And again, work-study is meant to fit to your schedule, so talk to a supervisor if it becomes a problem.  

FAFSA advantages

Work-study doesn’t count as income on your FAFSA forms because it’s considered financial aid. The money you earn won’t affect your financial aid eligibility for the following academic year. It is subject to taxes, however, so expect to see that reflected in your returns the following year.

Am I guaranteed a position and how do I find one?

You’re not guaranteed a work-study job. You must first accept the official work-study award, and then, like any other job, you’ll need to explore positions, apply, interview, and get hired. Jobs are typically posted in your campus career or employment center. Walker found hers through a mini work-study fair, so keep an eye out for events on your campus. Work-study positions may be limited and competitive, so be sure to apply early. Towns suggests exploring jobs during and after summer orientation, even if applications aren’t open yet. “Orientation is the perfect time to ask questions about jobs and how you look for them,” he says.

Related: Campus Jobs: Why They’re Smart and How to Get One

How do I get paid?

Undergrads are paid by the hour with a paycheck or direct deposit either every two weeks or once a month. If you’re a grad student, you might receive a salary. Pay rate depends on the job type, responsibilities, and your state’s minimum wage. Figuring out how many hours to work takes a bit of basic math. Let’s say you were awarded $1,200 per semester. Divide that number by your hourly rate—let’s say the federal minimum wage of $7.25—to determine the number of hours you can work per semester. That’s 165.5. Divide that number by 16 weeks per semester to equal roughly 10 hours of work per week. Tracking hours may be a collective approach between the student, financial aid office, and student employment office, Towns says.

Typically, you can’t continue working after your work-study funds are exhausted. However, some colleges might have institutional funds for additional hours, or the financial aid office may be able to reallocate unused work-study funds to you. As you near your work-study limit, check with your financial aid office to ask about extra available funds, Towns recommends.

Is there anything else I should know about work-study?

  • You won’t receive funds up front like a loan, grant, or scholarship. This means you can’t use the money to pay for fall tuition or your housing bill because you have to work the hours first like a regular job.
  • You need to maintain satisfactory academic progress to retain your financial aid. This usually means maintaining a 2.0 GPA or higher.
  • Work-study is a real job. You need to commit and demonstrate good work habits.
  • Don’t be intimidated. Work-study is a great way for inexperienced students to start building professional skills, almost like an internship.  
  • You’re not obligated to take a job or work the full amount. But be aware: if you opt out, your school might withdraw the funds later in the semester. Also, unused work-study funds don’t carry over to the next year.

Related: Quiz: Which Campus Job Is Right for You?

Any kind of campus job will help you connect to your college community in a positive way. It can lead to new friends, mentors, or even an unexpected career path. Work-study is just one path to employment and work experience. It can highly benefit you if you decide to enroll, but you also have many other options if you choose not to. What you do to earn money in college is entirely up to your comfort level and ability to maintain all your responsibilities.

Supplement your potential work-study funds with scholarships that you can find with our Scholarship Search tool.

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