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How Does Work Study Work?

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While there’s nothing more exciting than receiving an acceptance letter from a college or university, financial aid letters might sometimes warrant a different reaction. The realm of financial aid can often be confusing. You might find yourself surrounded with words like “CSS profile,” “FAFSA,” and “EFC,” and they may seem like an entirely new language.


Sometimes, a student will receive a financial aid package that includes something called “work study.” If this is the case, you might be wondering what that means. How does this program work? For whom will you be working? How will you get paid? What will you be doing? Read on for answers to these questions and more.


What is work study?


Work study is a federal program that partially funds jobs for students with financial needs. It provides part-time jobs for current students at a given college or university. This program is available to part-time or full-time students in undergraduate, graduate, and professional schools. It is administered by schools who participate in the Federal Work-Study program.


What kinds of jobs work study does provide?


In general, work-study jobs will emphasize civic engagement. Ideally, these jobs will be related to your course of study, if at all possible. Jobs can be on- or off-campus.


If you’re working on campus, this means that you work for your school. On-campus work-study jobs might include working in the library, dining hall, or residence halls. These jobs can often be beneficial to full-time students because your work will be at your school, so there won’t be a long commute time, and it might even be okay to study or do homework while you are on the job. Keep in mind that this isn’t the case with every on-campus work-study job, and you should definitely check on this with your employer beforehand.


If you are off campus, you will usually work for an employer that is a private nonprofit organization or public agency. In these cases, the work that you provide for your employer must be in the public interest. This means that the work you perform must in some way benefit the nation or your community. In terms of work-study jobs, this might mean working in a public library, government office, community center, public school, hospital, or day care center.  Some schools even have agreements with private for-profit employers; in these cases, your work must be related to your field of study, since these types of jobs are not considered to be serving the public good.


It is important to keep in mind that even if you are involved with the work-study program, you are not guaranteed a job. Once you receive your work-study award, in rare cases your school might match you to a job, but most will require that you find a job, apply to it, and go to an interview yourself.


What will you earn? How is this determined?


Work-study jobs are required to pay you at least federal minimum wage. You might even make more, depending on the type of work that you do and the skills that are required. A research assistantship, for example, might offer a higher wage than a job manning the front desk at the campus library.


Your work-study award will be depend on when you applied for work-study, your level of financial need, and your school’s level of funding. You should also be aware that a work-study job is different from a regular job in the sense that you cannot simply work for as many hours as you want; the amount of hours that you can work is predetermined by the amount of money allotted by your federal work-study award.


Additionally, when considering how many hours you will work, your school and your employer will both take into account your class schedule and academic progress. Work-study jobs can be ideal for students for this reason—often, your employer will be more willing to work with you because they understand that you are a full-time student with serious academic demands.


How will you be paid?


If you are an undergraduate student, you will be paid by the hour. If you are a graduate student, you will either be paid by the hour or have a set salary, depending on the kind of work that you are doing.


According to regulations from the Federal Work-Study program, your school must pay you at least once per month. Your school must pay you directly with a paycheck unless you request that the money be deposited directly in your bank account or your working-study earnings be deducted  from your education-related institutional fees (like tuition, room and board, or other fees).


Be sure to keep in mind  that your work-study funds will not be applied directly to your tuition. You get to decide where your work-study award is deposited.


How does the FAFSA relate to work study?


Work-study awards are based on a student’s financial need. This financial need is determined by the FAFSA (the Free Application for Federal Student Aid), a document used by schools to help determine how much financial aid a student will get. For more information about this, check out this CollegeVine post about filling out the FAFSA.


Like most processes involving financial aid, awards will be given on a first-come first-serve basis, so you should be careful when handling deadlines and be sure to apply as early as you can. You will need to reapply for federal work study each year—you are not guaranteed it one year just because you received it the previous year.


Work-study earnings will be removed from your FAFSA calculation for the next year, so you don’t need to count these earnings as money that you made during the year once you re-apply. This is helpful because it will not decrease the size of your federal aid eligibility (whereas having a non work-study job could potentially add to the income you earned during the year and decrease the amount of financial aid that you will be given the following year.


The takeaway


While it might seem confusing or intimidating at first, work study can actually be beneficial to many students with demonstrated financial need. The program can be a helpful way to gain work experience and offset some of the costs of college, not to mention the fact that having an employer that understands your needs and your schedule as a full-time student can be beneficial as well.


For more information about work-study programs and financial aid, check out these blog posts:


How Do I Get Started Saving Money For College?

FAFSA, CSS Profile, IDOC, Oh My: A Guide to Financial Aid

How to Evaluate, Compare, and Leverage Financial Aid

What Does It Mean to Be Independent on the FAFSA?


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Devin Barricklow
Senior Blogger

Short Bio
Devin Barricklow is a Political Science and Creative Writing double major at Columbia University. She’s really excited to be able to share her expertise about the college process with students who need advice. When she isn’t writing for CollegeVine, she enjoys reading the poems of Mary Oliver, going to concerts in the city, or cooking (preferably something with lots of bok choy and ginger).