What is a Federal Work Study Program?


  • Work Study is a program offered by the federal government that allows students to earn money to cover their college expenses.
  • You have to complete the FAFSA to be eligible.
  • Priority is given to students who demonstrate financial need although all students can apply.
  • If you’re accepted into the program, it’s your responsibility to find a job.

Work study is a form of federal financial aid that’s offered by the federal government. It is a type of ‘earn while you learn’ program, which allows students to work part-time while enrolled in school. Some work study jobs can be related to your field of study so you can gain relevant work experience while also funding your education.

What's work study and why isn't it actually financial aid

Source: flickr user the-open-university.

Participating in the work study program offers several benefits and it all starts with completing the FAFSA. Here’s everything you need to know about what work study is, how it works, and how you get paid.

How Does The Federal Work-Study Program Work?

The federal government offers several types of financial aid to make it easier for students to afford college tuition. The Federal Work-Study Program is a need-based form of federal financial aid that is in addition to federal grants, scholarships, and student loans.

Although all students can apply for work study, priority is given to students who demonstrate pressing financial need. Students who are accepted into the program get a chance to earn money through a part-time job to help cover their college expenses.

If you wish to participate in the work-study program, you must convey your interest while completing the FAFSA. When assessing your application, the authorities will determine whether or not you’re eligible to earn money through this program. If you don’t tick the box saying you’re interested in work-study, you won’t be considered at all.

Your financial aid award letter will state whether you’re accepted into the program or not. The letter will also describe details of the program and your next steps.

Benefits of the Federal Work-Study Program

Before getting into details of work study, it helps to get an idea about the benefits of the program.

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1. You keep what you earn

Work-study is a great alternative to student loans when you’re falling short of funds to cover your college expenses as student loans come at a cost.

With work-study, you do the work upfront but whatever you earn is yours to keep. You don’t have to return it or pay interest on your earnings. Although you can choose to spend your income on anything you want, it’s best to use it to cover academic expenses, whether that’s school supplies, food, or transportation. That way, you’ll minimize the amount you have to borrow and be able to graduate with as little student loan debt as possible.

2. Work Study income doesn’t impact on your federal financial aid eligibility

The amount of federal financial aid you’re eligible for depends on various factors, the major factor being your family’s total income. This includes any income you earned during the school year or during the summer. Yes, that is included in the financial aid calculations. About 50% of student income is considered as funds available to pay for college. This can lower your financial aid eligibility.

However, work-study earnings are not counted in the calculation and will not affect the amount of financial aid you’re eligible to receive. Remember, you have to file the FAFSA every year and your federal financial aid eligibility is calculated every year. You do need to report your work-study annual earnings on the FAFSA every year but it won’t be factored into the calculation to determine your award for that year.

3. Work-study jobs offer more convenient schedules

Taking up a job through the work-study program is different from taking up a job outside of the program. You may work the same number of hours and earn the same hourly salary but there’s one major difference.

With work-study jobs, all employers are approved by the school’s financial aid office. The employers are mostly non-profit organizations, private companies, or public agencies that perform work in the public interest. Approved employers allow students to schedule their work hours around their academic schedule. This allows you to maintain your work hours without missing any classes or exams.

Employers who are not part of the program may not allow you this flexibility, which can make it difficult to juggle both, work and study.

4. It’s an opportunity to gain valuable work experience

If you get a job in the field you’re interested in, working while studying allows you to put theory into practice. Applying what you learn in the classroom into practice in the workplace allows you to take your learning to the next level. When you graduate, this work experience can give you a competitive edge over other fresh graduates who don’t have any work experience.

Even if you don’t get a job in your field of study, it’s still a great learning experience. There’s a lot you can learn while working with other professionals in any field. You’ll hone your soft skills and also get a behind-the-scenes look at how things function in different workplaces.

5. It’s a great way to expand your network

In any job you take up, you’ll be working closely with other professionals. If you’re working on campus, this may include professors and other faculty. Regardless of whether you’re working on or off campus, in a related or unrelated field, this is your opportunity to build relationships and expand your professional network. These are professionals you can reach out to when you’re looking for a job referral, a letter of recommendation, or a mentor to learn from.

Potential Drawbacks

Despite the many attractive benefits, there are a couple of potential drawbacks that you should consider.

Juggling working while studying can be challenging

The one challenge with enrolling in this program is trying to balance working while studying. This can be particularly challenging if you’re enrolled in a demanding academic program.

Your work hours and earnings are capped

When you’re accepted into the work study program, your maximum award is calculated. This amount is based on your level of financial need, your school’s available funding, and when you apply. Your maximum work study eligibility will be stated in your financial award letter. As a participant in the program, you can only work up to a certain number of hours a week and earn up to the amount mentioned in this letter.

It’s still a great way to earn money, but if you aren’t earning as much as you feel you need, you may need to pick up another part-time job, some gig work, or more on a private student loan.

What Kind Of Work Can You Expect Through Work-Study?

There’s no fixed rule about the kind of work you can or should get. Work-study jobs usually may be related to the student’s field of study, but they aren’t always. Or they may center around civic education or in service of the community.

As this program is meant for students who are currently in school, the work is always part-time so that you have time to study too. Most work-study jobs are on campus and usually involve working directly for the school. The off-campus jobs mostly involve working with nonprofit organizations or public interest organizations.

How Much Can You Expect To Earn Work-Study?

You can expect to earn at least the current federal minimum wage if you get a work-study job. The exact hourly rate varies depending on the type of job you get. Some jobs pay more than the minimum hourly rate even at the entry level.

As a general practice, work-study jobs pay undergrads by the hour. For graduate and professional students, the pay can be either hourly or as a salary depending on the specific program. According to the latest study published by the Education Data Initiative in April 2022, students earn an average of $1,847 per academic year through work-study.

You may receive a paycheck every week or at the very least once a month. You can request your employer to deposit your salary directly into your bank account. Or you can ask your employer to transfer your salary to your school’s account to be used towards outstanding school fees like tuition or room and board.

How To Apply – 5 Important Tips

Tip #1: You will need to complete the FAFSA and meet all of the eligibility requirements. One of the questions on the FAFSA application form asks, ‘are you interested in work-study?’ Check ‘Yes’ if you’re interested. If you fail to do this, you won’t be able to enroll in the program.

Tip #2: Federal financial aid, which also includes work-study, is allotted for one academic year only. You have to complete the FAFSA every year to receive financial aid for every year you’re in college. If you intend to work part-time right through college, make sure to complete the FAFSA and tick ‘Yes’ to work-study every year.

Tip #3: Although the FAFSA has a long application window, it’s recommended that you apply as early as possible. Ideally, you should apply as soon as it opens on October 1 for the next academic year. FAFSA financial aid is disbursed on a first-come-first-served basis. The earlier you apply, the more likely you are to receive the maximum amount you’re eligible for. Work-study spots are limited so it’s best to apply early before they are all given out.

Tip #4: Not all colleges offer work-study. Be sure to check with each school’s financial aid office and ask if they participate in this program. If work-study income is an important factor in covering your college tuition, make sure to choose a school that offers this option.

Tip #5. Some schools may require students to submit additional documentation or fill out additional paperwork for work-study. It’s a good idea to ask your school’s financial aid office and ask if they have any special requirements so you can keep everything ready in advance.

How To Find Work-Study Jobs

Acceptance into the program doesn’t guarantee a work-study job. It’s your responsibility to look for jobs, send in job applications, and go to interviews. This doesn’t mean you cannot make use of resources, however. Professors, academic advisors, your school’s career services center, and job fairs are all great resources. Your school’s financial aid office may also be able to help you find the right program. Using the resources available will help you look for jobs that are in your field of study and accommodate your class schedule.

Is Work Study Worth It?

As with any other opportunity, the federal program has its pros and cons.

On the plus side, it’s a great way to earn work experience, network with professional contacts, and of course, earn money. Earning money eases financial strain due to college costs and significantly lowers the amount of student loans you have to take on.

On the other hand, you may have less time to study, complete projects, or even socialize. But, with some proper time management and determination, you will be able to fit it all in and come out a winner.

For more information on financing your college education, read more informative articles and use the virtual tools available on the College Raptor website.

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