Each year, the U.S. Department of Education awards more than $150 billion in federal grants, loans and work-study funds to college students who qualify for need-based financial aid based on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), according to the office of Federal Student Aid. Unlike scholarships, grants and loans, a work-study award has to be earned through part-time employment. Colleges apply for work-study funds through the U.S. Department of Education and the money received is used to pay work-study wages. For each work-study job, the federal portion of the earnings is anywhere from 50 to 100 percent, and the student's employer covers the rest.
You'll never have to pay back your work-study award, but the amount you're eligible for is generally much smaller than other forms of financial aid. Work-study isn't available everywhere, so check with your school's financial aid office to see if they participate. Apply as soon as possible by filling out the FAFSA, since financial aid is often awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Be sure to select "yes" where the application asks if you're interested in work-study.
Most students use their earnings to pay for living expenses and use savings and loans to cover larger costs like tuition and room and board. Your financial aid award letter will show how much you're eligible to earn from work-study, but it's up to you to find and apply for jobs. You're guaranteed to be paid at least minimum wage and you can typically set up direct deposit with the financial aid office.
Typical jobs include bookstore or cafeteria positions, or it could even be related to your area of study, such as a science major working in a laboratory or research facility. At least 7 percent of a school's work-study funds must go to students who work in community service jobs, according to the Department of Education.
Here are some ways a work-study job can offer a number of advantages.
1. You Keep What You Earn
While you have to pay student loans back with interest, work-study earnings are yours to keep. How you spend them will depend on your individual situation.
"I live in an apartment-style dorm and our meal plan is minuscule," said Rachel Brooks, a 20-year old computer science major at the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chicago. "So I use most of my work-study money on food, and the rest is either sent home to my mother or saved."
Some students like Lara Teagues, a 20-year old information technology and management major also at IIT, have other priorities.
"I'm a mom, so all of my work-study earnings go to my child," she said. "I rely on savings and [student] loans, as well as a summer job, to pay for tuition."
2. Your Paycheck Won't Affect Financial Aid Eligibility
Like most financial aid, work-study awards are only guaranteed for the current school year, which means you'll have to fill out the FAFSA every year you attend college. Yet unlike other forms of income, your work-study job won't affect financial aid eligibility. You'll still have to report your work-study earnings on the FAFSA, but they won't count against you in the calculation that determines your award.
3. Work-Study Jobs Are Convenient
Most work-study jobs are located on campus, but there are also some off-campus opportunities. Employers are approved by the school's financial aid office and are generally private or non-profit companies or public agencies where work performed is in the public interest. Regardless of where your job is located, you can usually schedule your work hours around your class times.
Teagues appreciates the convenience of on-campus work.
"I used to work 30 hours a week or more as a full-time student," she said. "My non-work-study jobs usually had fluctuating schedules, which made it difficult to find time to study. But work-study employers have been much more willing to work around my schedule. And they've been very understanding when I need to take time off."
4. The Reward Is More Than Just Financial
A work-study job in your academic field can offer valuable experience that may even guide your future career choices.
Denise Arce, a 20-year old sophomore at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana, previously had a work-study job tutoring students at an elementary school. Working with children influenced her decision to double major in social work and psychology. She plans to go to graduate school for social work and pursue a career in family counseling.
Brooks and Teagues both have work-study positions as interns for the Chicago Professional Chapter of the National Society of Black Engineers where they are learning marketable skills like how to write code and use Google Analytics.
"Our work as interns helps us retain what we learn in the classroom, which overall makes school easier," said Brooks.
Since many schools offer convenient ways to find jobs that are flexible and accommodating to class schedules, work-study can be a great way for students to earn extra money while building a résumé.
FAFSA is a registered service mark of the U.S. Department of Education.