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How to Get a Federal Work-Study Award (and Borrow Less for College)

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If you filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and received a federal financial aid package offer, you might have noticed work-study as an option provided to you. Offered through the government and participating schools, a work-study program provides part-time jobs to both undergraduate and graduate students as part of their financial aid package.

Work-study isn’t quite the same thing as a part-time job. For example, a work-study program offers jobs with schedules (and a set number of hours) to help you balance your school work. A part-time job might not be so flexible.

Is work-study worth it? To help you answer this question, let’s look at the following topics:

What is work-study?

When figuring out the definition of work-study, it’s good to know that work-study jobs are typically community-service based or centered on the field in which the student is studying. Also, these jobs may be on or off campus. The money earned from the school job goes towards covering college expenses.

But these federal financial aid programs can sometimes be confusing. Knowing a few key details is helpful in understanding exactly how the work-study program can reduce your college expenses.

Eligibility for work-study

When you fill out the FAFSA, there will be a box where you can indicate if you want to be considered for a work-study program as part of your financial aid package. Financial need is the main criteria taken into consideration, and you must attend a school that participates in the program. According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 3,400 colleges and universities offer a federal work-study program.

To increase your chances of getting awarded work-study as an option, it’s best to fill out the FAFSA early, as funds for this program are limited. Only about 500,000 students get offered the opportunity, according to a 2017 report by the Brookings Institution (the most recent available research on the subject).

To find out the likelihood of getting work-study and how much you could get, you can use tools such as Federal Student Aid Estimator. After inputting your family’s financial information, it will reveal how much work-study you could receive based on national estimates in addition to what other types of aid (grants, federal loans, etc.) you could be awarded.

How the work-study program works

Just because a work-study option is listed on your award letter doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a job placement or a certain amount of money. The financial aid package might say, for example, that you’re eligible for $3,000 worth of work-study, but you still have to find an employer to hire you and secure enough hours to equal that amount (though your school should be willing and able to help you).

While there is no minimum or maximum amount awarded, the average work-study award is $1,808, according to Sallie Mae’s “How America Pays for College 2019 Report” — but that amount isn’t guaranteed from year to year.

You will find out about your exact job and weekly hours once you’re at school. There you will be able to search through work opportunities at the financial aid office or on-campus employment department. Then, like with any other job, you’ll have to apply and interview for the position. The final decision is up to the employer.

Some schools might have job placement available, but it’s best to be prepared for a job search ahead of the start of the semester.

Types of jobs included in work-study

In general, work-study jobs are mostly academic or community-related. If the job is on campus, you’ll likely work for the school in some capacity. This could mean you help a professor with research, complete administrative tasks in an office or work in the school library. Campus tour guide jobs may also be work-study positions.

An off-campus job is typically with a private nonprofit organization or a public agency that benefits the community in some way. You could work in childcare or tutoring, for example. In fact, at least 7% of work-study jobs must be community service gigs such as these, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

In some cases, schools may have partnered with a for-profit employer, but those jobs would have to be related to your coursework to be considered eligible.

Typical work-study hours and pay

The good news is these jobs tend to have flexible hours to work around your school schedule. The bad news for those eager to rack up the hours is that there’s a limit: You’re only allowed to work the number of hours that’s equivalent to the amount that you’ve been awarded.

So, if you were awarded $3,000 worth of work-study, your combo of wage and number of hours could not exceed that amount. You can only work part-time hours through the federal program, and most students work 10 to 20 hours per week on average.

As for pay, it’s required that you earn at least the current federal minimum wage, though you may start at the state’s minimum wage if it’s higher. You could ultimately earn more than that depending on the job, skill level required, whether you’re a graduate or undergraduate student and the amount of funding your school receives.

The only major difference between undergraduate and graduate students is that undergrads are paid by the hour whereas graduate or professional students can be paid by the hour or a salary.

As for when you’ll get paid, your employer has to give you a paycheck a minimum of once a month.

Benefits of work-study vs. a part-time job

You might think you’re better off working a non-work-study job to make more money. While that could be true, there are some things you should consider:

  • Although your income is subject to federal and state income taxes, if you’re a full-time student and working less than 20 hours a week, you’re exempt.
  • Work-study earnings are not considered traditional income and therefore are not calculated into your FAFSA.
  • The government and school don’t dictate how you spend your income.

Maximize the benefits of work-study

There are many ways you can make the most out of your work-study program. First, if you can get a job in your academic field, it can go on your resume as related experience. This could help later on when you’re searching for a full-time position and put you ahead of other candidates. Also, you’ll likely be working with someone who is an expert in this field and therefore can act as a mentor, especially when it comes time to graduate.

Also, since work-study jobs were created to be flexible and fit around your schedule, it might be an opportunity to get involved in extracurricular activities or take on a side hustle to make even more money while you’re still in school.

Lastly, when school is on break, so are you. Knowing you’ll have particular periods of time off can help you plan to visit your family, secure an internship or apply for another part-time job during those breaks.

Use work-study to borrow less for college

Since no one dictates how you spend your money, you can allocate it to cover any aspect of your life. The program wasn’t created to fully cover a major cost like tuition or room and board, but the money is typically used to cover the cost of living. This, in turn, brings down the overall cost of college, so you might not have to borrow as much in loans.

You can also use the bonus of having a steady income and flexible hours to try other side hustles such as tutoring or driving. That combined cash flow may ensure you have funds to pay for the more major costs, such as tuition or housing, in real time.

Or you could save what you make in one semester and use it to pay for the next, meaning you won’t have to borrow as much money in the future. This too keeps your overall college costs down.

Alternatives to work-study

Just because you don’t get offered a federal work-study option doesn’t mean you can’t make money while in school and still have flexible hours. There are some alternatives to consider:

1. Another on-campus job

Academic and administrative departments receive money to hire students to help with particular jobs that don’t necessarily fall into the work-study program. Keep an eye out for openings on the school’s job board or talk to your professors to see if they need help with a project.

2. State work-study programs

Usually, your school has to participate in the federal work-study program, but some states actually provide the benefit as well. For example, Minnesota has a state-run work-study program where undergraduate, graduate and vocational students can work part-time on or off campus to help pay for college. Some jobs are even set up as internships so that you can get the real-life work experience at private institutions as well.

Washington state also has a similar program for low and middle-income students, so be sure to research what types of programs your state has available.

3. Personal side hustle

The rise of the gig economy has made it possible for students to make extra cash while still enrolled in school full-time. Research which opportunities would work best for you, and know that with many of these gigs there are no startup costs and you determine the hours.

4. Employer tuition assistance

Instead of working for a school which will give you money to pay for college costs, consider working for an employer who will. There are many companies — AT&T, Bank of America and Comcast, for example — that have tuition-assistance programs. These programs usually reimburse you for approved educational expenses. Research which companies have these benefits and the time requirement to see if it’s a feasible way to lower your total college costs.

How work-study can help lower college costs

If you’re offered a work-study program as part of your federal financial aid package, you might want to consider it. Research shows that although the award amount is not high, every little bit you don’t have to borrow means you’ll be spending less on your education in the long run.

Plus, if you can maximize your work-study to help secure a more lucrative full-time job or use the flexibility to take on a side hustle, then there’s even more of a benefit than the nominal award amount.

That said, just because you’re offered work-study doesn’t mean you have to accept it. Consider if taking it on is worth your time to bring down college costs.

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