What Is Work-Study? All You Need to Know About This Form of Aid

Find out whether this federal program is right for you

university students work on the service line of a dining hall as part of their work-study commitment

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Looking for ways to finance your college tuition? Federal student aid programs like work-study can help. Provided by colleges to ensure part-time work for students, work-study jobs are often on campus and related to your field of study. When scholarships, grants, and student loans aren’t quite enough to cover the cost of your attendance, work-study positions can be a great option for students looking to make extra cash. 

What Is Federal Work-Study?

Provided by the federal government, work-study programs are offered to qualifying students with financial need.

If you qualify, you’re expected to secure a work-study position through your school. 

The work-study program is widely accepted as a way to finance education. During the 2017-2018 academic year, more than 610,000 students participated in a work-study program, according to data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Federal Student Aid (FSA) website. About 3,600 schools participated that year, according to the data. 

Work-study is available to both full- and part-time students, including those seeking an undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees. You can check to see if your school offers work-study positions by contacting the financial aid office. 

Is Work-Study Right for You?

Work-study programs are helpful for students with financial need, but what they have to offer might not always be the right fit for every circumstance. Here’s what to consider before you sign up. 

Work-study can be a great financial solution to help you get through school, for some of the advantageous reasons shown below. But work-study isn’t right in every circumstance. Some people might decline a federal work-study program because of these disadvantages:

  • Gain work experience in a supportive environment where you can create relationships with professors and school staff who can offer guidance in your area of study

  • Use your paycheck as you’d like—the funds can help with your daily expenses or go toward your tuition, unlike some forms of federal financial aid 

  • Take advantage of flexible hours and part-time work, so you can focus on your education while making money

  • Reduce the amount of student debt you need to take on

  • Work-study positions are determined on an annual basis, so it’s possible that you will be eligible for a work-study position one year, and not the next

  • Your school might not participate in the work-study program

  • Working hours vary depending on your school, so you might not be able to work as many hours as you need (the amount you earn can’t exceed your total federal work study award, and your financial aid office will consider your academic progress and grades when assigning you work)

  • Work study alone probably won’t cover the cost of your tuition and living expenses, so you might need to work another job, depending on your financial situation

  • Receiving eligibility status for a work-study position doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re guaranteed a job—even after applying, you might not be able to get a work-study job at your school

  • Balancing a job and studies can be overwhelming for some students 

Earning Potential 

Work-study is typically calculated using a minimum hourly wage, which varies by state. However, some work-study positions may pay more than that, if they require a specific skill set.

Federal minimum hourly wage is currently set at $7.25 an hour, but you can check your state’s minimum wage on the U.S. Department of Labor’s website.

Rather than earnings being subtracted directly from your tuition, you will be paid in the form of a check at least monthly. You can also request that your school apply the money toward your tuition, fees, and room and board. Your total earnings cannot exceed the total amount of your federal work-study award.

If you’re a candidate for a graduate or professional degree, you could be paid an annual salary rather than an hourly wage. Keep in mind, whatever you make will be taxed on state and federal levels.

Application Process 

To apply for a work-study position, you will need to fill out the FAFSA form on the FSA website. Short for Free Application for Federal Student Aid, the FAFSA is used by the U.S. Department of Education and colleges to determine financial aid packages. Eligibility for work-study positions, scholarships, and grants are all decided using the information that you submit about your financial situation on the FAFSA. Once you’ve applied, you will be notified of your eligibility status.

Alternatives to Work-Study

If you don't qualify for work-study or you decide it’s not the right route for you, there are other ways you can find the money to attend college. Here are different ways to finance your education.

Federal Student Loans

The federal government offers student loans to qualified students. These loans have a fixed interest rate. Depending on the type of loan you qualify for, your loan might not incur 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, you can try borrowing from a private lender to help cover the rest of the cost. Your interest rate for private student loans will depend on your credit score. Make sure you compare quoted rates online so you can get the best deal possible. 

Scholarships and Grants

Applying for scholarships and grants—even if you feel you might not qualify—is definitely worth a try when you’re figuring out how to pay for your education. Research local niche scholarships that might fit your experience and interests, as well as institutional scholarships offered by your school and your state. 

Article Sources

  1. Federal Student Aid. "Work-Study Jobs," Accessed Oct. 9, 2019.

  2. Federal Student Aid. "Title IV Program Volume Reports," Download AY 2017-18 Campus-Based Programs." Accessed Oct. 9, 2019.

  3. U.S. Department of Labor. "State Minimum Wage Laws," Accessed Oct. 9, 2019.