What Is Federal Work-Study?

What Is Federal Work-Study?
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on September 1, 2020

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Over the last three decades, tuition prices have soared at both two- and four-year colleges — public and private. To pay for school, most students take out loans. Big loans can cover tuition and living costs, but paying them back is a large burden that can set graduates back financially for decades.

The Federal Work-Study Program provides funds to low-income students that they never have to pay back. Around 3,400 schools participate in this program, hiring low-income undergraduate and graduate students for part-time work, which may take place on or off campus.

Federal work-study jobs must serve the public good and should be as relevant to the student’s course of study as possible.

According to federal guidelines, work-study jobs must be in the public's best interest and should be as relevant to the student's course of study as possible. On campus, students are often employed as research assistants, library staff, and office help. Community service jobs include tutoring and childcare. Some schools also have work-study agreements with private organizations — both nonprofit and for-profit — and public agencies.

Work-study offers students a stream of income that can be used to help pay for school, but it doesn't have to be applied to college-related expenses. The hourly wage or salary earned through work-study can be credited to school accounts to cover tuition and fees, or it can be paid directly to the student as a check or direct deposit. Many students use these wages to help pay for food and other necessities.

Who Is Eligible for Federal Work-Study?

The only requirement to participate in work-study is financial need; a student's income must be below a certain amount to qualify. Both full- and part-time students enrolled at participating schools are eligible for work-study at all education levels, including learners taking undergraduate, graduate, and professional classes.

In order to demonstrate financial need, students must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

In order to demonstrate financial need, students must submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Some schools award aid on a first-come, first-served basis, so early applicants have the best shot.

You can apply for the Federal Work-Study Program by checking a box on the FAFSA form that indicates you want to be considered for work-study. Eligible students enrolled at colleges that participate in the Federal Work-Study Program will receive an award letter, but the letter alone doesn't guarantee a job.

Some schools match students to work-study positions, but typically it's up to students to find and apply for work-study opportunities through their school. If you apply for work-study and then decide you're no longer interested, you're free to decline the award.

Is Work-Study Worth It?

Award amounts distributed through the Federal Work-Study Program are generally much smaller than other forms of federal financial aid. The average work-study student earned $1,800 in 2019, according to Sallie Mae. Award amounts depend on students' financial need, as well as when they apply. Colleges have more federal funds to disburse earlier in the year.

Students earn their award amount by working, often for minimum wage. Undergrads are paid by the hour, while graduate and professional students may be paid by the hour or earn a salary. Wages depend on the type of work and the skills required.

The award amount represents the upper limit of what work-study students can earn in one year — it's not simply handed out. If students do not earn all of their work-study award, the remaining funds go back to the school's general work-study fund.

A student applicant’s work-study award amount depends on their level of financial need, their school’s funding level, and when they filed their FAFSA. Apply for aid early. Funds are limited.

Work-study may not be more profitable than an off-campus job, but the professional work experience could be more valuable. Work-study jobs must emphasize either civic service or the student's course of study.

Being employed through their school can also give students extra flexibility and assurance. Students can split their hours between two or more jobs and easily drop hours if their classes start to feel overwhelming.

Because work-study jobs are funded by federal financial aid, they could also be more stable than off-campus gigs. For example, students can still apply for remote work-study positions during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

How to Balance Work-Study With Academics

Students who work part time while going to college have lower graduation rates. Off-campus jobs are rarely related to a student's course of study, and spending extra hours away from the college environment can be distracting.

Unlike off-campus jobs, work-study jobs only allow students to work a limited number of hours per week.

Unlike off-campus jobs, work-study jobs only allow students to work a limited number of hours per week. Schools' financial aid offices consider students' class schedules and academic progress when assigning work hours, and they may cut back on those hours if a student's grades start dropping.

The Federal Work-Study Program requires that students balance school and work from week to week. With a hard upper limit of what students can earn, however, work-study could force some participants to look for a second job.

The program has a smaller budget than other federal aid funds and has been criticized for failing to adequately serve underprivileged, low-income students. However, changes could be coming. For example, the College Affordability Act — introduced by Congressman Bobby Scott in October 2019 — proposes increasing work-study funding to $1.5 billion for 2021, with regular yearly increases to bring funds up to $2.5 billion in 2025.

Feature Image: Tom Werner / DigitalVision / Getty Images

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