Interested in earning money while you study? Or maybe you'd like to leave college with practical work experience that makes you stand out to potential employers. If you're eligible for a work-study award, those are two ways you might be able to use the money.
What is Work-Study?
The Federal Work-Study (FWS) program is a federal financial aid program for undergraduate and graduate students who are attending an eligible school and enrolled in school at least part-time.
Unlike other types of aid, the FWS program doesn't give you a lump sum payment. Instead, it can help you secure a part-time job by paying up to 75 percent of your wages while your employer pays the remaining share.
You'll need to submit a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) — the same application that you use for other types of federal financial aid — to be eligible for work-study. The FAFSA application period is open from October 1 to June 3 and because some schools and states award financial aid (including work-study) on a first-come, first-served bases, you should submit your application as early as possible.
Employers must pay you at least the higher of the local, state or federal minimum wage for a FWS job. However, your award amount could lead your employer to limit how many hours you can work per school term to ensure your FWS funds don't run out before the term ends.
You may be able to get paid directly by your employer and spend the money how you'd like, or you might be able to have the money sent to your school to pay for educational expenses. While the money you earn from a work-study job is subject to income tax, your earnings won't count against your financial aid eligibility for next year's FAFSA calculations.
You'll have to resubmit the FAFSA each year to remain eligible for work study and your award amount can change depending on your financial need. Your offer could also vary based on your school's funding for the year and if you used the FWS awards that you accepted in the past.
Depending on your FWS allotment, you might not be able to work as many hours as you'd like or your funds might not last through both semesters. If that's the case, budget accordingly and consider finding another job.
Finding a Work-Study Job
Accepting your work-study aid doesn't guarantee that you'll be able to use it. You still need to find, apply for, interview and be hired by an eligible employer. If you decline your work-study offer, you may need to cover the gap with federal loans or private loans.
You could inadvertently forfeit your work-study award if you don't find a job by your school's deadline, which is typically around a month after classes begin. If you want to give yourself some time to adjust to college life or a new schedule, you may be able to submit a deferral request and keep a portion of the award money for later in the year.
While you can work on or off campus, not every job qualifies for work-study. Your employer must either be your college or a private nonprofit organization, public agency or for-profit company that has an agreement with your school. The work you do has to either be in the public interest or related to your studies.
Some schools have a directory of work-study jobs online and host work-study job fairs. Your school's career center or faculty from your major also might be able to help you find prospective employers.
Jackie Lam, founder of the frugal-living blog Cheapsters.org, fondly remembers a work-study job she had during her time at her alma mater, the University of California, Los Angeles. Lam spent the summer before her sophomore year teaching piano at a local Boys and Girls Club and used the money to help pay for school. She found her work-study job from a flyer hanging in the school's music department.
Making the Most of Your Work-Study Experience
Lam was able to find work she enjoyed and earn extra money for school with her work-study award. However, like Alexis Carter, a senior at Southern Utah University in Cedar City, Utah, you might be looking for a work-study job that gives you practical work experience in the field you want to enter after graduation.
A professor recommended Carter, 24, for her work-study job. "I've already handled creativity development, website analytics, larger campaign management, content marketing ideas and digital marketing best-practices implementation," she says. Carter will graduate at the end of April with a bachelor's degree in marketing and a technical writing certificate and she's getting valuable hands-on experience working in her school's marketing communication office.
Ahmed Bhuiyan, 30, enjoyed his work as a computer tech at Fordham University in New York City for a different reason. Some work-study positions allow you to study on the job, which is a great perk for busy students.
"The job was amazing because for most of the time, I would just sit in the library doing my classwork," he says.
Bhuiyan stayed in the position for four years before graduating in 2008 with a double major in political science and sociology. However, he also had two non-work-study jobs as a campus representative for Apple and American Airlines. The latter helped him line up a position with Booking.com when he graduated.
A work-study job can help supplement your savings and other forms of financial aid. While getting accustomed to the rigors of college-level courses, you may want to start with a job that has limited responsibilities and gives you time to study. Once you feel ready, you can also try to find an eligible work-study job that aligns with your interests or major and use the opportunity to gain valuable work experience.
FAFSA is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.