How Does Work Study Work? The Complete Guide

Get proven college application help. Check out our College Application Boot Camp. Reduce your college anxiety.

College tuition is an expensive investment. Luckily, there are plenty of options available to help you pay for school and related expenses, including the Federal Work-Study program.

In comparison to scholarships and grants, work-study is one of the least talked about and least understood forms of aid. Who qualifies for work-study? How do you apply? And how does the program work?

This guide will answer your work-study questions and help you determine whether the program is right for you.

What Is Work-Study?

The Federal Work-Study program is run by the U.S. Department of Education. In short, it funds part-time jobs for students who need help paying for college.

About 3,400 colleges in the United States currently participate in the work-study program. Based on the number of work-study jobs available and the financial need of the student body, the federal government provides funds to participating schools.

Next, the schools decide which students will receive work-study as an option in their financial aid package. The school also determines the maximum amount of money you can earn through the program. Students then find part-time work-study jobs on campus or in the surrounding community. These jobs are specifically designed for college students and will work around your schedule.

The program benefits both college students and colleges. Schools hire work-study students for many of the jobs around campus, and the federal government pays all or part of their wages. Meanwhile, students earn money to help with their expenses while gaining work experience.

State Work-Study Programs

In this guide, we will focus on the Federal Work-Study program. However, you should know that some states also have state work-study programs.

Overall, state work-study programs are very similar to the Federal Work-Study program. In most cases, you must be a resident of the state where you are attending school in order to qualify. The application process and criteria for state work-study varies, so you’ll need to look up requirements for your state.

Who Is Eligible for Work-Study?

Work-study students must meet the following criteria:

  • Be enrolled full or part-time in a degree-seeking program.
  • Be enrolled in or currently accepted at a school that participates in the work-study program. (You can check with your college’s financial aid office to see if your school participates.)
  • Demonstrate financial need.

Even if you meet these requirements, keep in mind that schools ultimately determine which students will participate. They carefully evaluate students’ circumstances and financial need. However, work-study jobs are limited, so colleges can’t offer positions to every eligible student.

How Do I Apply for Work-Study?

You must fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to be eligible for the work-study program. One question on the FAFSA specifically asks whether you’re interested in work-study. Make sure to answer “Yes” if you’d like colleges to consider you. (You’re not required to participate in the work-study program if it’s offered. So, if you change your mind later, just decline that part of the package.)

The FAFSA is used to calculate your family’s Expected Financial Contribution, or the amount of money the government estimates your family can afford to pay for tuition that year. This number determines your eligibility for a Federal Pell Grant, and it’s used by colleges to create your financial aid/award package. This package may include grants, loans, and/or work-study.

Here’s a helpful tip: Submit your FAFSA as soon as possible. The earliest date to submit is October 1, and some schools award aid in the order the forms are received. For a program with limited availability like work-study, it pays (literally) to file early.

Experts also suggest telling your school about circumstances that affect your finances and can’t be reported on a FAFSA, like divorce, medical expenses, or death in the family.

Are Work-Study Students Guaranteed a Work-Study Job?

Qualifying for work-study doesn’t guarantee you a job. It gives you the go-ahead to look for and apply to available work-study positions. If you’re hired for one of these positions, your school has promised to pay you a certain amount of funds for your work. (We’ll talk more about compensation in a moment!)

However, schools are definitely incentivized to help you find a job. As we mentioned earlier, the federal government helps colleges pay students for important campus jobs through work-study programs. And your school most likely wants to take full advantage of available federal funding.

Additionally, only work-study students can fill work-study positions. This limits the applicant pool and reduces competition for available jobs. If you qualify for the program, you are very likely to find a work-study job. But if you don’t, you won’t receive any federal funds tied to work-study.

What Kind of Work-Study Jobs Can I Get?

Most likely, you’ll find a wide variety of work-study jobs available at your school and in the surrounding area. It’s up to you which jobs you apply for, so see what’s out there and decide what interests you. Ideally, the job will be related to your field of study.

If you work on campus, you may find a job in the bookstore, financial aid office, gym, dining hall, library, or a computer lab. You could tutor other students, do clerical work in an office, lead campus tours, or help troubleshoot tech issues. Work-study students sometimes work as resident assistants or teaching assistants, or even help school faculty with their research.

Typically, off-campus work-study jobs are related to public service. It’s a requirement that work-study jobs benefit the community, so expect your potential employers to be government organizations, nonprofits, or other civic agencies.

So, should you look on-campus or off-campus? It’s up to you! The best-case scenario is finding a job that speaks to you and aligns with your interests and career goals. Otherwise, consider the benefits of the jobs available.

If you live on campus, a campus job is more convenient, and it’s also a great opportunity to connect with your peers and sometimes network with faculty. Jobs on campus are also more likely to generously accommodate your class schedule and homework/studying needs. On the other hand, an off-campus job may give you a more authentic real-world experience. Check out your options, apply to a few promising ones, and go from there.

Need college application help? Check out our College Application Boot Camp. Your first session is free.

How Do I Find a Work-Study Job?

So, work-study jobs are not automatically assigned to you. You’ll need to find and apply for these positions. Usually, your school’s website or student portal will have a list of available work-study jobs and allow you to apply directly through this platform.

Reach out to your school’s financial aid office if you have questions. They should be able to point you in the right direction, and they may have tips or resources for work-study students.

Prepare a resume and brush up on your interview skills, just like you would for any job. Keep in mind that different work-study jobs may look for different qualifications. For instance, positions like research assistant and teacher assistant have more specific requirements than a front desk job in the gym or library.

How Much Money Can I Earn Through Work-Study?

In your financial aid package, your college will tell you the maximum amount you can earn through work-study. This number will vary, but work-study students must be paid at least the federal minimum wage. If your state has a higher minimum wage, that will apply to your work-study job as well.

Your designated maximum amount will also influence the number of hours you can work. In general, most work-study jobs will give you 10-20 hours per week. Some graduate-level work-study jobs pay a salary instead of an hourly wage.

According to a 2020 Sallie Mae survey, the average work-study recipient is awarded $1,847. It’s certainly not enough to pay for college, but it can offset expenses. Additionally, work-study earnings aren’t factored into your FAFSA, unlike money earned through other jobs. This means the money you make through work-study won’t decrease your need-based eligibility in the future.

How Do I Get Paid for My Work-Study Job?

Payment for work-study job is basically the same as the payment process for a regular job. If you have a campus job, you’ll be paid by your school. Your employer will pay you if you work off-campus. You can arrange payment by check or direct deposit, and the money is yours to spend however you’d like.

If you prefer, you can usually arrange to have your work-study earnings applied directly to your tuition and fees. Most students choose to receive the paycheck and put it toward extra expenses like books, food, gas, or off-campus rent.

Schools must pay students at least once a month, but you may receive more frequent paychecks. Talk to your financial aid office or your employer about your pay schedule and any other payment-related questions during your job search.

Do I Keep My Work-Study Job for All Four Years?

Not exactly. You may know that you have to submit a new FAFSA every year of college. This is because your family’s financial situation may change. The federal government wants to distribute aid based on the most recent financial information available.

Since work-study is tied to the FAFSA, your school will re-evaluate your eligibility for the program each year. Your award amount may also change from year to year.

Sometimes, this means you’ll need to start the work-study job application process over. But if you like your work-study job, and they like you, talk to your supervisor. They may be able to save the position for you, under the condition that you receive another work-study grant. Even if you can’t make this type of arrangement, a job where you’ve performed well will most likely let you return (assuming they have an open position).

What If I Can’t Get a Work-Study Job?

There’s no guarantee that you’ll qualify for the work-study program. And even if you do qualify, you still need to get hired for a work-study job.

But if work-study doesn’t work out, you have plenty of other options. Of course, you may receive aid in the form of grants or scholarships. You can also apply for regular part-time jobs, whether on campus or in the surrounding city or town. In many cases, you can work more hours for a regular part-time job and earn more money. (However, these earnings will be factored into your financial aid package for next year.)

As a final resort, you can also get a student loan. Both federal and private loans must be paid back with interest. Your financial aid package will include a federal loan offer, which you can accept or decline. Subsidized loans, for students with financial need, don’t charge interest while you’re in school and for a short time after graduation. Unsubsidized loans hold you responsible for all interest payments.

So, don’t get discouraged if you don’t qualify for work-study or get a work-study position. There are plenty of other ways to pay for college. And if you decide that work-study isn’t for you, remember that you can always decline the option, or quit the program later. If a better opportunity arises, you aren’t required to stick with work-study.

Final Thoughts: How Does Work Study Work?

The Federal Work-Study program sounds a bit complicated at first, but it’s a lot like a regular job. The main difference is that the federal government and your school must determine that you qualify for the opportunity.

To become eligible, you must submit your FAFSA. Submit as early as possible to maximize your chances of receiving a work-study grant. If you qualify, your school will include a work-study offer in your financial aid/award package. This offer will list the maximum amount of money you can earn through the work-study program.

Next, you apply for work-study positions on campus or nearby. You’ll likely work 10-20 hours a week for at least minimum wage, and you’ll be paid at least once a month. You can choose to receive a check or a direct deposit to your bank, or you can ask that your school deduct the money from your tuition.

In addition to helping you cover extra expenses, work-study jobs provide you with valuable work experience. You build relationships on campus or in the community, expanding your network. You gain skills, knowledge, and something to add to your resume. It’s a great program that benefits colleges and college students alike, but remember that it’s just one way to reduce the cost of college.

Get the best college application help.

Check out our College Application Boot Camp. It features a 100% satisfaction rate.

Learn more ➜