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

Participating in part-time work-study jobs while at college is a great way to fund your tuition bill or pay for textbooks– all while practicing valuable skills and gaining solid work experience.

But what IS a work-study job anyway? How is the federal government involved? What kind of jobs are there? How much will you get paid? We explain all the details below.

What is Federal Work-Study?

Work-study is a government-funded program giving students the opportunity to earn financial aid through part-time employment. It is usually listed as a part of your college financial aid package, along with grants, scholarships, and loans. While not all schools offer this opportunity, there are 3,400 colleges and universities that do.

How does work-study fit into my financial aid package?

You’ll see an amount attached to Work-Study. This is the total (maximum) amount of money the school can offer you through the work-study program. You can not work overtime to earn more.

Two great things about this kind of aid: Since you work for this money, you earn it (and do not need to pay it back). In addition, your future financial aid (for your other years in college) is not impacted by work-study earnings. Usually, the more income you make, the lower your financial aid award. However, the FAFSA doesn’t count work-study earnings as regular income, so your financial aid award will not decrease.

However, unlike a grant, you don’t automatically get the full work-study amount you’re offered. You must work enough to earn it. For example, if you’re offered $4,500 work-study per academic year, and you find an eligible part-time job that pays $15/hour, you’ll need to work 300 hours over the year (probably about 7-8 hours per week) to earn that $4,500.

(Psst – You can also “work” for your money by applying for scholarships! Sign up for Going Merry to get a personalized list of all the scholarships you’re eligible for.)

Student researching work-study jobs

What kind of jobs can I have, through work-study?

Students may be employed on-campus or off-campus with an approved employer. Most non-profit, civic education, and community-service related jobs are eligible. That’s because the work-study program was designed to encourage students to take on jobs that promote the public interest, while also ideally being related to your course of study.

On campus, most jobs offered by the university itself are eligible. An example of an on-campus job would be working at a computer lab. The job might consist of opening the lab, ensuring students sign in upon entering, helping to troubleshoot computer problems, showing students how and where to print papers, and answering tech questions. You might also work in the school library, as a receptionist at one of the school’s centers or gyms, or as a research assistant for a professor.

Off-campus work-study jobs usually take place with a private non-profit organization or a public agency, but some schools will approve of jobs with private for-profit organizations.

How much can can I earn? Who pays for it?

To give you an idea of earning potential, the average work-study participant earns $1,500 for the academic year.

While this may not seem like a lot, small amounts can go a long way! Just look at this student who earned $150,000 by applying for small scholarships. And remember: you can work outside of work-study too, particularly over the summers.

Your work-study pay is usually an hourly rate (though sometimes graduate students can earn a salary), determined by the employer. Of course, work-study employers must pay you at least the federal minimum wage. And if the state minimum wage is higher, then you’ll be paid at least the state minimum wage. 

You will receive your pay as one check (or direct deposit). Behind the scenes, though, your salary is being funded by a combination of the federal government and the employer. In general, about 75% is paid for by the federal government (via the school) and 25% is paid by the employer (nonfederal).

Researching work-study jobs

Are there any restrictions on what I can spend my work-study earnings on?

No, schools do not dictate how you spend your work-study earnings. You are paid directly, usually by check or direct deposit, so you decide how the funds are used. For example, you could spend your earnings on groceries, travel expenses, or school supplies. Alternatively, you can request your school to use your earnings toward your college expenses, like room and board fees. That’s a great advantage to work-study: the flexibility you get with using the funds!

(External scholarships are similar. While some scholarship providers cut a check directly to the school, many actually give you award money to spend however you please on college expenses.)

Where do I begin if I’m interested in work-study?

As with many forms of college financial aid, you begin your work-study journey by completing the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). When filing your FAFSA, you’ll see a question asking whether you’d like to be considered for work-study aid. You’ll want to confirm that yes, you are interested.  Remember that funds are awarded on a first-come, first-serve basis. Completing your FAFSA early betters increases your chances of receiving work-study aid.

Come March or April when you get your admission and financial aid letters, you’ll then see how much you’ve been allocated in work-study aid. 

Confirm with your college financial aid office if there are any additional steps to ensure you take advantage of these funds. They might have separate forms for you to fill out, before you can apply for work-study jobs. Or they might just point you to resources where you can find work-study job listings.

How do I find a work-study job?

Securing employment for a work-study program requires effort on your part. You are responsible for finding your own job. However, job hunting isn’t as scary as it may sound.

A good strategy is visiting your college’s career center or the office of student employment for assistance. Staff can give you tips on using job search tools, writing a resume and cover letter, and interviewing well.  You might even be able to find a job right on campus by speaking directly to the head of your department.

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 that work-study jobs are not guaranteed every year and the amount earned may not be the same every time it is offered in your financial aid package.

Work-study is a great program to consider when searching for ways to support your academic journey.  But so are scholarships, so see how Going Merry can help you earn money that way

Will work-study distract me from my academics?

Be mindful when you’re working during college. Committing to multiple activities and responsibilities – studies, student organizations, Greek life, friends, and work-study – can lead to student burnout. 

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

The average student enrolled in a work-study program works 10-25 hours per week (and you’re encouraged to work no more than 20 hours per week). Part-time employment gives you the flexibility to create a work schedule to fit your academic schedule.

Your work-study job can also help you sharpen skills such as organization, communication, swift problem-solving, and leadership. Gaining real-world work experience helps you learn solid skills that you can include in your resume when applying for future employment.

 Some of these skills (like planning and organization) might even help you stay on top of your academic work.

Researching work-study jobs

Are my work-study earnings taxable? 

Yes — but it’s also kind of complicated. 

First off, you definitely need to report your earnings, as they are considered income. Your employer should provide you with a W-2 form with all the information you need.

Second, you’ll probably need to pay partial taxes. Most work-study earnings are subject to both federal and state payroll taxes. However, you are exempt from paying FICA (Social Security and Medicare) taxes if you’re enrolled in 6+ credit hours. 

You might also be exempt from the payroll taxes if you’re working for select nonprofits, or teaching or doing research under the National Health Services Corps Scholarship Program or the Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship. Check with your employer. 

Finally, if you’re using your work-study earnings to pay for “qualified education expenses,” you can claim the American Opportunity Tax Credit. This allows you a maximum credit (i.e. income that is tax free) of up to $2,500, including 100 percent of your first $2,000 in expenses and 25 percent of the next $2,000. If you’re earning over $4,000, though, the remaining work-study income will have to be fully taxed (again, just payroll, not FICA). 

I still have questions about work-study.

We completely understand! We recommend speaking with your academic advisor about your work-study options. Plus, check out this article on how to pay for college, which includes more options and more information on how work-study can help you in your college journey.

Want more options to fund your education? Try external scholarships!

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Shalon B

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