When you fill out your FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), you are going to run across the question: “Are you interested in being considered for work-study?”
I had no clue how to answer that question when I was filling out my FAFSA, and I remember needing to ask my parents, “what is a work-study program?” before I knew which box to click.
If you or your child are heading to college soon, here’s the basic idea: a work-study program is a part-time job that you can use in addition to grants, scholarships, and loans to pay for your college tuition.
Answering “yes” doesn’t guarantee you a job, and before you answer, either way, it’s important to understand more about work-study programs, like:
- What is a work-study program?
- How you apply for federal work-study jobs
- What kinds of work-study jobs exist
- What work-study programs pay
- How you use them to pay for college
- How work-study programs affect your financial aid
- Work-study vs. part-time jobs
- Are work-study programs worth it?
What is a work-study program?
College work-study programs are a federal student aid option that allows qualifying students at participating colleges to earn money to help pay for tuition or other college-related expenses. Work-study programs alone won’t be enough to cover all of your college costs, but they can definitely reduce the amount you take out in loans.
These programs offer flexible, part-time work that is designed for college students. They can be on or off campus jobs that are related to your course of study or have a focus on community service. That means you are gaining valuable experience that can give you an edge when looking for jobs after college while earning money at the same time.
How do I apply for a federal work-study program?
To be considered for a work-study job, you will need to answer “yes” when asked on your FAFSA. And like any other financial aid options – scholarships, grants, and loans – filling out your FAFSA as soon as possible is important because aid comes on a first-come, first-serve basis.
After you fill out your FAFSA, you will hear back in a few weeks or months with your financial aid package, including your eligibility for work-study.
If your financial aid package lists an amount allocated for work-study, you will be responsible for finding, applying for, and being hired for a work-study job.
What kinds of work-study jobs are there?
Once you find out that you are eligible for work-study, you’ll need to start looking for opportunities.
Most colleges will have portals where you can browse work-study positions, and they can include jobs such as:
- Tutoring. These are jobs available in a K-12 setting or tutoring other college students. For K-12 positions, you may even find parents who are willing to pay for additional hours outside of your work-study job.
- Research positions. For students in scientific fields or areas of study with a heavy focus on research, these positions can give you some hands-on experience.
- Computer lab assistance. A work-study job in a computer lab might be troubleshooting tech problems or monitoring students in the lab.
- Library aids. You could be checking books out, reshelving books, doing data entry, maintaining collections, etc.
- Other on-campus positions. There is a wide variety of additional jobs like working in the fitness center, social media management, financial aid advisors, note takers, etc.
- Off-campus positions. These jobs could be working with the local Boys and Girls Club, helping at a food bank, daycare work, etc.
Applying for work-study jobs will require filling out an application, submitting a resume, and interviewing.
What do work-study programs pay?
Work-study jobs aren’t high paying, but you can expect to make minimum wage at the very least, and that per hour amount will depend on which state your college is in.
According to the Sallie Mae report How America Pays for College, the average work-study award was $1,693 in 2018, and 16% of students used work-study programs to help pay for college.
A few more things to know about your pay and hours:
- Your work-study pay can’t exceed your Federal Work-Study award in hours or pay.
- So that they don’t affect your academics, work-study jobs take your class load and academic standing into consideration when assigning your work hours.
- Undergrads are usually paid hourly.
- Graduate students can be paid hourly or by salary.
- You can expect to receive a paycheck at least once a month.
How do I use work-study to pay for college?
While work-study jobs are designed to help you pay for college, you don’t necessarily have to use them for tuition. They are also designed to cover college-related day-to-day living expenses… not sure booze for campus ragers qualifies though.
You do have a couple of options with how you receive your paycheck – check, direct deposit, or credited to your school account to be used specifically for tuition.
Related: Is a College Degree Worth It?
How do work-study programs affect financial aid?
Because you won’t be making a ton of money, they likely won’t have an impact on the type of financial aid you are eligible for in the future, but you will still need to report your income on your FAFSA.
You will enter this information in two places: when you are asked about the total amount on your IRS Form-1040 and when you are asked about taxable earnings for work-study programs.
For the 2019-2020 school year, dependent students can earn up to $6,660 per year before seeing a reduction in the amount of financial aid they are eligible for. But if you remember from earlier, on average, students using work-study only earned $1,693 in 2018.
Work-study programs vs. part-time jobs?
The reality for most Americans attending college is that you’re probably not cash flowing the full amount. College tuition is expensive, add in room and board, books, and other expenses, and you are going to need to find more ways to cover the cost.
Work-study programs are one option, but if you’re already considering a part-time work-study job, then why not just get a regular part-time job? Here are a few things to know about work-study jobs vs. part-time jobs:
Work-study jobs are designed for students. Because these are jobs take your course load into consideration, they give you an allocated set of hours that works with your schedule
Work-study jobs can give you specialized experience in your field of study. Knowing that finding a job in your field of study is the goal, these jobs can give you firsthand experience that can give you an edge when entering the workforce after graduation.
You might be able to earn more with a regular part-time job. Work-study jobs are inherently low paying jobs. Other part-time jobs, like restaurant servers earning tips, for example, may be able to earn you more than a work-study job, and that means you’ll need to take out fewer student loans.
Too much income will affect your financial aid eligibility. Like I mentioned, for the 2019-2020 school year, dependent students can earn up to $6,660 for the year before your income affects the amount of aid you qualify for, which also includes Pell Grants that don’t have to be repaid. Work-study programs generally won’t meet that threshold while part-time jobs may.
Some part-time jobs don’t care that you’re in school. You might find a great employer that wants to work with your school schedule, but that’s not the reality for all jobs. These jobs might be difficult to balance during exams, when you want to go home for a break, with your extracurriculars, etc.
So, are work-study programs worth it? My final word
If you are were looking for a definitive “yes” or “no,” sorry… my answer falls into the “find what works for you” category.
The obvious benefits to work-study programs are that they can reduce your student loan burden while potentially giving you valuable experience for your post-graduation job search. And, you can also set them up to go directly towards your college tuition, which means you aren’t even going to try to spend them on cheap beer at college parties.
The downside is that they don’t pay well, and that means you will likely need to find other ways to fill the gap between what you are given to pay for college (family contributions, grants, and scholarships) and the amount you will need to borrow. Most students will need to take out student loans to balance out the cost of going to college.
I also know that I brought up that dependent students will feel a hit to their financial aid award when earning over $6,660 per year, but that doesn’t mean that working more and earning more during college is a bad thing. If you can balance enough work to help pay for college and your course load, then you’re probably going to do yourself a favor by reducing your student loan burden.
More than anything, deciding on a work-study program teaches college students some valuable personal finance lessons – finding a good work/life balance, what earning more can do for your future and the start of learning to live and work on your own.