Everything You Need to Know About Work-Study Jobs in College

This post was updated on June 28, 2019

Every possible option should be considered when organizing college funds.  At Going Merry you can look at the different ways you are paying for college using our MerryBudget financial planning tool.  Exploring work-study means finding one more way to lessen the amount of money you need to borrow. Higher education is already expensive. Finding money you don’t need to pay back is the best kind of money!  

Work-study is available to undergraduate, graduate, and professional students. Students may be full-time or part-time. Most work-study programs operate in the same way by supplying aid to financially eligible students. Otherwise, colleges and universities may have other criteria or restrictions for work-study. It is important to speak with your school about details specific to their work-study program, such as a minimum GPA.

This is especially true for international students. Typically, international students do not qualify for work-study, but check with your school for detailed information.

Finally, work-study programs follow the academic calendar to match time spent in college, and do not impact winter or spring break.

What is Work-study?

Work-study is a program offering opportunity to earn government funded aid through part-time employment. The funds are supplied by either the federal government or state government. Federal work-study programs are more common. In fact, the U.S. Department of Education reports approximately 3,400 colleges and universities provide a Federal Work-study program.

Student employment may occur on-campus or off-campus at an approved employer. The program defines non-profit, civic education, and community-service related jobs as most eligible. Off-campus jobs are usually with a private non-profit organization or a public agency, but some schools will approve of jobs with private for-profit organizations.

Work-study favors jobs promoting public interest. At the same time, the program encourages you to be employed in “work related to your course of study whenever possible”

The work-study amount is split into a percentage paid by the school (federal) and paid by the employer (nonfederal). In general, the federal portion funds 75% and the nonfederal portion funds 25% of the student’s wages. The percentage ratio can differ depending on the job. For employment with for-profit employers, the percentage is 50% federal and 50% nonfederal. For non-profit employers, the percentage ratio can be 90% federal and 10% nonfederal. While for most literacy or mathematics tutor jobs, the federal funds may cover up to 100%.

Schools do not dictate how funds earned during work-study are spent. You are paid directly, and you decide how the funds are dispersed. For example, you could spend the money on groceries or travel. Alternatively, you can request your school to use your earnings toward your college expenses, like room and board.

Where to begin?

As with many forms of financial aid, you begin by completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). In case you are unfamiliar with the application, check out our overall FAFSA guide.

While filing your FAFSA, you will see a question about consideration for the work-study program at your school. You can confirm or decline. Requesting work-study as part of your financial aid is that simple! For reference, you can view pictures for applying to work-study in this helpful post.

Asking for consideration on your application does not guarantee you will receive an offer. Schools must determine the financial need of students before offering funds.

If you do receive an offer, here are a few quick facts about the amount you will see:

  • This amount is earned, so you will not be required to repay the school, and you will not have any debt towards the school.
  • This is the total amount of money the school can offer you for your work-study.
  • The amount is earned at the rate of per hour pay from your employer (salary pay is possible for graduate and professional students).

Will the work distract from my academics?

You should be careful when working during college. Committing yourself to multiple activities and responsibilities can lead to burnout. That is the last thing anyone wants!

Fortunately, work-study programs are designed to help avoid such a dilemma.

The average student works 10-25 hours per week during their work-study employment. Part-time employment allows you to create a work schedule to compliment your academic schedule. Work-study employers give students flexible hours, as academics are the top priority.

Equally important, work-study employers must pay you at least the federal minimum wage. If the state minimum wage is higher, you will be paid the state minimum wage instead of the federal minimum wage.

While working, your job can teach you skills your academics will not. You can sharpen skills such as organization, communication, swift problem-solving, and leadership. Gaining real world experience creates solid examples you can include on your resume when applying to future employers. Depending on your job, you may be able to write the following on your resume:

  • Interacted with diverse customers
  • Handled monetary transactions
  • Data entry

Likewise, you’ll be able to use these skills to stay on top of your academic work.

What should I know about the work-study process?

Before participating in a work-study program, there are a few details you should think over. Every student’s situation is different. You determine if a work-study program benefits your college journey.

Let’s get the easy details out first. The funds are awarded on a first-come first-serve basis. Completing your FAFSA early betters your chances of receiving work-study aid.

Your earnings are considered income from the government’s viewpoint. Therefore, your earnings are taxable. Only full-time students working less than 20 hours a week are exempt.

The huge relief is that your future financial aid is not impacted by work-study earnings. Usually, the more income you make the lower your financial aid award. FAFSA does not count work-study earnings as regular income, so your financial aid award will not decrease.

Securing employment for a work-study requires effort on your part. You are responsible for finding your own job. Job hunting is not as scary as it may sound. A good strategy is visiting your school’s assigned career advisor or the office of student employment for assistance. Staff will give tips on using job search tools, writing a resume and cover letter, interview behavior, and interview questions.

Additionally, you can speak with your school to find out if they have a job placement program. A counselor will help you more directly in searching for an appropriate job.

How great is the earning potential?

The amount offered in your financial aid package is the maximum amount you may earn from the work-study program. Overtime hours are not available for example. To give you an idea of earning potential, the average work-study participant earns $1,500 for the academic year.

While this amount does not cover a large percent of what funds are needed for you to attend college, it does decrease the debt you would accrue if taking out a loan. Small amounts can go a long way! Just like this student earning $150,000 by applying to small scholarships. And remember too, you are able to work outside of work-study, for example part time during school or full time over the summer.

When you think about it too, your earning potential does not stop at work-study. The program gives you an opportunity to upgrade your skills and resume. Furthermore, work-study allows you to network, which leads to having references for your resume. In fact, if you build a strong relationship, you might convince your employer to hire you after completing your work study. Consider this scenario similar to an intern being hired after completing an internship. You can continue earning a steady income outside of your work-study program. Moreover, you can use these factors to apply for higher paying jobs in the future.

Comparatively, other common ways to secure money for college include:

  • Scholarships
  • Grants
  • Loans
  • Side Hustles
  • Paid Internships
  • Employer Tuition Assistance

What if I change my mind?

If you were offered work-study in your financial aid package, but no longer wish to participate, you may decline work-study. Be aware, work-study is not guaranteed every year and the amount may not be the same every time it is offered in your financial aid package.

Work-study is a reasonable program to consider when searching for ways to support your academic journey. Add “work-study” to your list of money-saving options!

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