What Is Work-Study?

Definition & Examples of Work-Study

African American Generation Z Female Getting News on College Funding

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Work-study is a type of federal financial aid that allows eligible students to earn money from a part-job to fund their education.

Learn how work-study can help fund your education, its pros and cons, and how to get it.

What Is Work-Study?

Federal Work-Study, or simply work-study, is a federal financial aid program that provides part-time employment to students while they're enrolled to help them pay their education expenses. It's available to part- and full-time undergraduate, graduate, and professional students (medical students, for example) with financial need, but is only administered by schools that participate in the program.

How Work-Study Works

When you don't want or can't get student loans, scholarships, or grants, or they aren’t quite enough to cover institutional costs such as tuition, fees, or room and board, work-study is a great option to make extra cash to cover them. On- and off-campus jobs may be available from your school, though they focus on community service or your field of study. If you work on campus, you'll typically work for your school; work off-campus, and you're more likely to work for a public agency or private nonprofit.

The funding for work-study is provided primarily by the federal government and partly by participating schools. But students must apply for the program through the federal government. The process typically works as follows:

  1. Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to find out if you're eligible for a work-study award. Specifically, you'll have to demonstrate a financial need through the information you submit in the form about your family income and size along with your year in school, which is used to calculate your Estimated Family Contribution. There is, however, no income cutoff. 
  2. If you're eligible and are awarded work-study, contact your school's financial aid office to confirm that they participate in the work-study program and find out whether positions are available and how to apply.
  3. Pick from the available positions and apply for a work-study job through the school, participating in an interview if needed to secure the job.
  4. As you work up the allotted number of hours, you'll be paid hourly as an undergraduate or on a salary basis as a graduate or professional student for the hours you put in up to the annual award limit, which varies by the school. Unless you request to have funds sent to your bank account or paid toward institutional charges, you'll be paid directly via paycheck.

The income you earn from work-study will be taxed at the federal, and if applicable, state levels.

How Much Can I Earn From Work-Study? 

You'll receive at least the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour, as of 2020. But if you live in a state with a higher state minimum wage, you can expect to get the higher wage.

That said, some work-study positions may pay more than that depending on the nature of the work and the skills demanded. Your time commitment will range from 10 to 20 hours and will be set based on your academic schedule and progress.

However, your total annual earnings can't exceed the total amount of your annual federal work-study award. There is no minimum or maximum award; your award depends on when you apply, your financial need, and how much funding the school can afford to provide. 

Check your state’s minimum wage on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.

Pros and Cons of Work-Study

  • Work experience

  • Flexible use of funds

  • Allows time to be a student

  • Reduced student debt

  • It's need-based

  • Your school might not participate

  • No job guarantee

  • Limited hours and earnings

  • Balancing a job and school can be overwhelming

Pros Explained

Work-study offers many benefits:

  • Work experience: Work-study allows you to gain real-world job experience in a supportive environment where you can create relationships with professors, school staff, or community members who can offer training or informal guidance, often pertaining to your area of study.
  • Flexible use of funds: Use your paycheck as you’d like on education expenses of your choosing—the funds can go toward your tuition or other expenses.
  • Allows time to be a student: As a form of part-time employment, work-study allows you to spend your non-work hours immersed in your course of study and other campus activities.
  • Reduced student debt: Although work-study isn't "free money" in the sense of a scholarship or grant, as you'll need to earn the award, it still represents money you don't have to borrow or later repay as you would a loan. The less you borrow, the less debt you'll likely have when you leave school.

Cons Explained

The drawbacks of work-study include:

  • It's need-based: Unlike non-need-based sources of federal student aid, such as Direct Unsubsidized Loans and PLUS Loans, work-study is only eligible to those with financial need.
  • Your school might not participate: Only schools that participate in the Federal Work-Study program offer work-study jobs.
  • No job guarantee: Qualifying for a work-study award doesn’t guarantee that you'll get a job. Even if your school participates in the Federal Work-Study program, it might not have sufficient work-study funds or open jobs. Moreover, work-study eligibility is determined on an annual basis based on your family income or financial need or your use of funds received in prior years, so it's possible that you'll be eligible for a work-study position one year but not the next.
  • Limited hours and earnings: You can only work up to a certain number of hours and can't exceed your total annual award. As such, work-study alone may not cover the cost of your tuition and other expenses. You might need to obtain other forms of aid (loans, scholarships, or grants) or work another job, depending on your financial situation.
  • Balancing a job and school can be overwhelming: Working while enrolled in a degree program can be overwhelming for some students. If you stretch yourself too thin, both your employment and education could suffer.

Alternatives to Work-Study

If you don't qualify for a part-time job while enrolled in school, or it’s not the route for you, there are other ways to find money to attend college:

  • Federal student loans: The federal government offers student loans to eligible students. These loans require no credit check (except for PLUS loans) and have a fixed interest rate, and depending on the type of loan, the loan might not accrue interest until after you graduate or leave your program. You may also be eligible for federal loan repayment plans after you graduate.
  • Private student loans: If you don’t receive enough funding from federal student loans, consider borrowing from a bank or another private lender to cover your remaining costs. You'll typically need established credit to get these loans, and they could come with a higher or lower interest rate than federal loans.
  • Scholarships: Applying for scholarships—even if you feel you might not qualify—is worth a try as they represent free money for your education that doesn't have to repaid. Research corporate scholarships that fit your experience and interests, as well as institutional scholarships offered by your school and your state.
  • Grants: Grants are offered by the federal or state government as well as nonprofits and educational institutions, but only to students with financial need.

Work-Study vs. Job

Work-study is sometimes confused with traditional jobs, which may be on- or off-campus.

The key distinction is that work-study is a student aid program funded primarily by the federal government and administered by participating schools. Students must apply for it using the FAFSA, and work-study is only available to those with financial need. In contrast, jobs are funded by the employer, which may or may not be a school, so may diversify your employment options. Financial need isn't a requirement for applicants typically.

Although you'll secure your job directly from the employer in either scenario, the nature of the work varies. Work-study jobs are part-time and more civic-oriented or related to one's field of study; regular jobs may be part- or full-time and focus on any field.

Finally, if you have financial need and are enrolling in a school that participates in work-study, the federal program is a great way to guarantee that you will receive at least the federal minimum wage. The federal wage doesn't necessarily apply to all regular jobs, though they may be an alternative if you don't qualify for work-study and need to supplement other types of federal financial aid to cover your expenses.

Work-study Job
Funded mainly by the government Funded by employers
Administered only by participating schools and focuses on civic-oriented jobs A host of employers and employment areas to choose from
Students must have financial need No financial need required
Guarantees the federal minimum wage Federal minimum wage not guaranteed

Key Takeaways

  • Work-study is a federal student aid program that provides part-time employment to enrolled students with financial need to help them pay for education expenses such as tuition, fees, and room and board.
  • Interested students must fill out the FAFSA form and then apply for and secure a job through their school, which must be one that participates in the Federal Work-Study program.
  • Students can work up to the allotted number of hours but can't exceed the annual work-study award, which has no minimum or maximum but depends on when you apply, your need, and the school's funding.
  • Work-study offers students with financial need an opportunity to earn money for school and reduce the amount they take on in loans and subsequent debt, but loans, scholarships, and grants may be more suitable for those without financial need or who feel they cannot juggle work and school.