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Guide to Federal Work-Study Programs

Usmann Farooqui

Written By: Usmaan Farooqui

Published: 6/3/2022

Rising education costs can have students questioning whether going to college is worth taking out potentially expensive loans. For those committed to earning a degree, however, there are several ways to pay for tuition and associated expenses without going into debt. Work-study programs offer financial assistance that doesn't have to be paid back, allowing students to earn money while pursuing their studies.

Work-study programs can seem less straightforward than a grant or scholarship, and you may wonder whether they're the best way to help pay for college. Our guide explains how these programs work and covers some of the details you should consider before applying for or accepting a work-study offer.

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What is a Federal Work-Study Program?

The Federal Work-Study Program is sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education, and includes over 3,400 participating colleges and universities. While there are many state-sponsored types of work-study as well, this program is the largest of its kind, with roughly half a million undergraduate students registered according to the 2021 National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators funding overview.

The concept behind work-study is simple: Students enrolled in an accredited school receive aid in the form of wages earned through a part-time job. In turn, these earnings can be used to offset various education costs. Students can apply for employment across a range of on -and off-campus settings, including university offices, private companies, non-profits, and government organizations. While they are typically expected to find jobs that align with their program of study, this requirement can vary depending on a school's work-study guidelines.

How do Federal Work-Study Programs Work?

Federal work-study is implemented by a college or university's financial aid department. Participating schools receive different amounts of government funding, which they disburse on a monthly or bi-weekly basis to students employed in work-study approved jobs. In most cases, these funds account for part of the money a student earns, with employers making up the remainder. However, federal funding can pay for 100% of the wages for certain occupations.

Rather than being credited automatically toward tuition and other fees — as with most forms of financial assistance — students have more flexibility in how they choose to spend their work-study aid. For instance, they can ask their school's financial department to apply earnings to tuition or on-campus housing balances. Alternatively, students can also have their wages deposited into a bank account and use them to pay for other costs associated with attending college, such as transport and meal plans.

Rather than being credited automatically toward tuition and other fees, students have more flexibility in how they choose to spend their work-study aid.

Federal Work-Study vs Part-Time Employment

There are clear differences between students employed via work-study and those who are pursuing regular part-time jobs outside their studies. The former are registered in an aid program, implemented in conjunction with their school and employer, that is specifically designed to help pay for college. Work-study students may therefore have jobs that overlap with their area of study — with many working on-campus — and are given a set number of weekly work hours. Their eligibility for work-study may also vary yearly with their financial status, making employment contingent on both their school's approval and available federal funding.

Students who are employed part-time are not limited in the types of jobs they can apply for or the number of hours they commit, as long as they are legally allowed to work while in school. Additionally, their compensation rates and employment terms are determined solely by their employer. These individuals also receive a regular paycheck, but, unlike work-study recipients, they typically have more discretion in how they choose to spend their earnings.

Frequently Asked Questions About Federal Work-Study Programs

Am I Eligible for Work-Study Programs?

In general, any student who is permitted to receive federal aid qualifies for work-study. This includes undergraduate and graduate students who are enrolled full -and part-time, as well as online learners. Undocumented and international students, for the most part, cannot apply for work-study aid. However, these individuals may still qualify for state-sponsored work-study programs depending on where they live.

How Do I Apply for Federal Work-Study?

To apply, fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and indicate on your form that you're interested in receiving work-study assistance. This ensures you will be considered for work-study, but doesn't force you to accept an offer should you receive one. Given that work-study opportunities can be quite limited, it's highly advisable to fill out the FAFSA several months in advance of your enrollment date. Additionally, while you don't have to look for a new job each year, you must reapply to work-study annually to continue receiving aid and get automatically rehired.

How Do I Get a Work-Study Job?

While some schools may automatically offer work-study recipients jobs, qualifying for assistance doesn't necessarily guarantee employment. In most cases, you will have to find and apply for jobs on your own after receiving a work-study offer. You can begin earning work-study aid only after securing an approved job.

How Much Money Will I Earn in a Work-Study Program?

The average work-study award per student in 2020 was $1,847, according to financial firm Sallie Mae. The amount of money you make will largely depend on your employment type, the number of work hours assigned to you based on the size of your award, and your employer's compensation rate. Additionally, with institutions receiving varying amounts of federal funding, your paycheck may also be determined by how much money your school allocates to a specific job.

Is Work-Study Income Taxed?

Like wages earned through any job, work-study earnings are subject to both state and federal taxation. Your employer will issue you a W-2 form at the beginning of the tax year, which you will need to declare yearly income when you file taxes.

Should I Accept Work-Study?

Work-study can be a rewarding way to earn money to pay for college. However, as with other aid opportunities, it's important to evaluate whether this form of assistance is the right choice for your circumstances. You may consider weighing the following pros and cons before applying for or accepting a work-study offer.

Pro: Relevant work experience while in school

Work-study can offer a unique chance to gain experience in your chosen area of study. This sort of real-world exposure can make you a competitive candidate in your field once you graduate.

Pro: More control over financial aid

Earnings from work-study can be used to pay for an assortment of college expenses, not just tuition as is often the case with grants and scholarships. This yields more flexibility in how you can use financial assistance.

Pro: Flexible hours

Unlike other employment, work-study prioritizes your education over any job responsibilities you may have. The hours worked are meant to fit around class schedules and are unlikely to interrupt progress towards your degree. A regular part-time job, however, may have the unwanted consequence of interfering with your studies.

Con: Limited financial support

The amount of aid you receive is based on the number of hours you're approved to work, which schools typically cap at a maximum of 30 — though some may allow as few as 10. The money you make through work-study is therefore unlikely to fully cover large expenses like tuition.

Con: Fewer availability of jobs

Work-study recipients can only apply to positions approved by their school's financial department. This means there are fewer job opportunities open to them as compared to students who are looking for non-work study employment.

Overall, you shouldn't rely on work-study to cover all, or even most of the costs of your education. However, if you're interested in gaining relevant work experience and earning a regular paycheck, without taking too much attention away from school, work-study can help you meet your educational and future professional goals.

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