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How federal work-study can help you pay for college

Build your resume and avoid student loans with this federal program.

Updated

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:

  • Financial need
  • 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.

A step-by-step guide to using the FAFSA4caster

How much will I actually earn?

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.

How to qualify for and how to lose eligibility for federal aid

How do I apply?

There are a few steps to take before you can start earning money through the Federal Work-Study Program:

Step 1: Complete the FAFSA.

You have to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid to apply for work-study. In the student demographics section, select Yes when it asks if you’d like to be considered for federal work-study.

Step 2: Accept your financial aid offer.

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:

  • Library assistant
  • Fitness center receptionist or manager
  • Campus tour guide
  • Department office assistant
  • Teacher’s assistant
  • Research assistant
  • Tutor
  • IT 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.

Bottom line

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.

You can explore more ways to pay for school with our guide to student loans.

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