There’s one kind of financial aid that’s different from the typical grants and loans people generally think of. Work-study programs are a terrific, but sometimes-overlooked, way to get financial aid that you don’t have to pay back. It comes with other perks too, since depending on the job you get, you can make stronger connections within your school and/or develop skills related to your field of study.
Here’s everything you need to know to receive, and make the most of, your work-study options.
What is federal work-study?
College work-study programs are a federally funded way to provide students with part-time jobs on- or off-campus to help pay college costs. Work-study is a great way to get additional aid beyond grants and scholarships and minimize the amount you have to take out in student loans. It also gives you an easy way to earn money to pay for day-to-day expenses such as food, books, and transportation.
Am I eligible for work-study?
Probably. Anyone who has financial need based on the information from your FAFSA and is enrolled at least part-time in an undergraduate or graduate program will qualify for work-study.
How do I apply for work-study? And how do I get a job?
There are two parts to this process. (It’s not as complicated as it sounds, promise.) First, you have to apply through the federal government to determine that you're eligible for the work-study program. Once that’s confirmed, you can apply for a specific job(s) through your college.
To apply for work-study you need to fill out FAFSA. When you get to question 31, check “yes” to indicate you want to be considered for work-study.
When you get your student aid offer letters from your schools, it will outline any grants, scholarships, student loan amounts, and work-study amounts for which you’re eligible.
The amount you qualify for is based on the maximum your school has deemed available to you. It can’t be more than your total cost of attendance, including tuition, room and board, tuition, books, etc. Each school has a maximum total for all eligible students as well as a different number of available student work-study roles.
Remember, qualifying for work-study doesn’t automatically guarantee you a job — you still have to take the initiative to find and apply for whichever work-study position you’re interested in. You can expect to fill out an application and go through an interview just like any other job you’ve applied for.
If you qualify for work-study and you’re interested, make sure you move quickly and follow the instructions from your school on how to apply for jobs through the work-study program.
The earlier you apply, the more likely you are to ensure you get your preferred work-study job — or get any job at all. Each college handles this a little bit differently, so contact the school’s financial aid office to make sure you understand what you need to do to get a placement.
What kind of job can I get through a work-study program?
Work-study programs provide opportunities in a variety of roles for your college. Jobs are highly varied and can include roles in the administrative offices, cafeteria, library, bookstore, or labs. Any department within the college or university can provide space for students in the work-study program.
Sometimes, schools even provide off-campus work-study jobs — these jobs have to benefit the public in some way and will typically be with a not-for-profit or public agency. Upperclassmen, and those with some experience in the field, are more likely to get higher-demand jobs. That’s another reason to make sure you apply for work-study jobs as soon as you find out you’ve qualified.
How much can I earn?
There are two ways to look at your work-study earnings: Your hourly rate and your maximum award. You need to understand both to figure out exactly how much of a boost your work-study will provide to your weekly cash flow.
The amount of your total work-study award is determined by your financial need. For example, if your work-study award is capped at $2,500, you will only be allowed to work as many hours as it takes to get to $2,500. (Most schools cap work-study hours at 20 per week.)
Your hourly rate will depend on the type of work you're doing, the amount of money remaining in the college's work-study fund, and your experience or skill level. But you will always earn at least the federal minimum wage or the minimum wage of that state if it’s higher than the federal rate. You can earn more than the minimum if you have relevant skills or experience.
Let’s go back to our earlier example: Let’s say your total award is $2,500 and your entry-level work-study job pays $8.50/hour. You’d be able to work about 295 hours. Sounds like a lot, but that’s just slightly more than seven full-time workweeks.
In most cases, your work-study employer (and you) will want to spread those hours out more evenly over the school year. If the two semesters run approximately 32 weeks (not including breaks, orientation, etc.), you’re likely to work about 9-10 hours per week and earn roughly $75-85/week — before taxes.
So, no, work-study is not a ticket to easy riches. But it does provide real-world work experience as well as ongoing income to help you cover your day-to-day expenses and reduce the amount of student loans you take out.
How will I be paid?
Your school must pay you at least once a month, either by check or direct deposit to your bank account. You may also have your pay put directly into your school account to pay for education-related charges such as tuition, fees, and room and board.
Is my work-study income taxable? Does it affect future financial aid?
If you earn enough (from work-study and/or other sources) to file a tax return, you must report your work-study wages as taxable income on federal and state returns. However, work-study income doesn’t count against you when you apply for financial aid the following year.
What if I can’t get, or decline, a work-study position?
If you miss out on the available jobs through work-study, or can’t find one that works for you, that doesn’t mean you can’t still work on campus. You’d just have to apply, and get hired, directly. Or you can look for another job near campus with a private business.
Note: These other options could provide more income in the long run since your hours wouldn’t be capped. But this income will be taken into account when you apply for financial aid next year.
Carol Katarsky is a contributing writer for Nitro. She is an award-winning journalist with extensive experience writing about both finance and education. Her corporate and non-profit clients include AIG, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, and the Project Management Institute. She lives in Philadelphia with her husband, son, and one cat more than she should. Read more by Carol Katarsky