Work-study is the least-popular federal financial aid program. Only 14% of students participated in 2019, according to a national study by Sallie Mae. That could be because it requires a lot of work beyond the actual work-study job for a relatively small award. But it might be worth considering if you can qualify and want to build some work experience before graduating.
What is the Federal Work-Study Program?
The Federal Work-Study Program is a financial aid program offered by the Department of Education (DoE) that allows both undergraduate and graduate students to work in exchange for funds toward their education. Your school must participate in the program to qualify. Jobs are usually focused on community service or related to your area of study.
How much can I get?
Students earned an average of $1,808 from federal work-study in 2019, according to Sallie Mae. Your work-study limit is based on three factors:
When you apply
How much funding your school has
Many schools have limited funding for work-study programs, so funding is often offered on a first-come, first-served basis. The earlier you apply, the more likely you’re able to receive the full amount you can qualify for based on financial need.
Pro tip: Use the FAFSA4caster to get an estimate
The FAFSA4caster is an online tool that gives you an estimate of how much federal student aid you’re eligible to receive — including work-study. It might not give you the exact amount, but you should be able to get a general idea of how much you can expect to receive through this program — and if you can qualify at all.
That depends on you. It’s up to the student to find a job that both participates in the work-study program and is willing to hire you for the number of hours you’re eligible to receive. That’s why you might not want to save finding a job until the last minute — all of the positions you could have qualified for might already be taken.
What will my salary be?
Work-study jobs pay $7.25 an hour at a minimum — that’s the federal minimum wage. If your state has a higher minimum wage, that’s the lowest hourly rate you’ll receive. Your rate depends on the type of job and your skill level.
Am I eligible?
You must meet the following requirements to be eligible for federal work-study:
Meet the general federal student aid criteria
Demonstrate financial need
Attend a school that participates in the Federal Work-Study Program
When you apply might also affect your eligibility. If you apply too late, your school might completely run out of funds.
Once you receive your financial aid letter from your school, follow the instructions to accept the offer on work-study and any other programs you’re interested in.
Step 3: Find a participating job.
As soon as you accept the offer, start looking for a job that participates in the Federal Work-Study Program. Most schools have a page on their financial aid website where you can search for eligible jobs. If yours doesn’t, reach out to the financial aid office and ask where you can find a list of available work-study jobs.
Follow the employer’s directions to submit an application — which often involves a cover letter and resume. Make sure to mention that you’re applying as a participant of the Federal Work-Study Program.
What type of job can I expect?
Your work-study job will likely either be a community service job or related to academics. Many work-study jobs are on campus, but schools also often partner with local nonprofits, businesses and government agencies. You might run across the following types of jobs:
Fitness center receptionist or manager
Campus tour guide
Department office assistant
How do I get paid?
That depends on your employer and what type of student you are. Undergraduate students get paid by the hour, while graduate and professional students might get a salary or hourly rate — it depends on the job. The DoE requires your school to pay you directly at least once a month. However, you can request to have your wages automatically put toward tuition, fees and other outstanding balances you owe your school.
Do I have to pay taxes on work-study?
Generally, yes — you must pay federal, state and any other local income taxes on your work-study earnings. If your employer doesn’t deduct this from your paycheck, set part of it aside to pay the IRS in April.
State and school work-study programs
The Federal Work-Study Program might be the most well known, but many states and schools offer private work-study programs. And sometimes these can award a lot more than the federal program. Most tuition-free colleges come with a work requirement, which is a type of work-study program. Reach out to your school’s financial aid office to learn what the requirements are and how to apply.
Work-study can be a helpful way to cut back on the out-of-pocket cost of your college degree. While it’s more involved than most other financial aid programs, it also offers the additional benefit of providing work experience — which can help you get a higher-paying job faster once you graduate.
No, the Federal Work-Study Program doesn’t match you with an employer — you have to find a job that you can qualify for yourself.
No, like all types of federal aid, you can lose eligibility and have differing award amounts from year to year. In fact, it’s uncommon for students to receive the same award each year, since tuition prices typically increase and personal financial situations rarely stay exactly the same.
No, you don’t have to include any work-study income on your FAFSA application.
Anna Serio is a trusted lending expert and certified Commercial Loan Officer who's published more than 1,000 articles on Finder to help Americans strengthen their financial literacy. A former editor of a newspaper in Beirut, Anna writes about personal, student, business and car loans. Today, digital publications like Business Insider, CNBC and the Simple Dollar feature her professional commentary, and she earned an Expert Contributor in Finance badge from review site Best Company in 2020.
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