Focus on Work-Study Programs

Focus on Work-Study Programs

Federal work-study is a student aid program providing access to paid part-time work for students with financial need. Work-study offers qualifying students a supplemental way of earning additional funding for college tuition, housing, and expenses. Typically, work-study is provided as a fixed sum which is earned through the course of one or two semesters by way of part-time work. Work-study can take a variety of forms depending upon each participating school’s program. Read on for details on these forms and other general features of the federal work-study program.

What is Federal Work-Study?

Federal Work-Study is a program through which students with financial need can supplement other forms of scholarship and financial aid with paid, part-time work. Payment for this work is provided through the federal student aid program.

More than 3000 colleges and universities offer some form of work-study for eligible students, allowing students to work part-time in either on- or off-campus jobs. The wages provided for this work are used to help offset the cost of college alongside additional sources such as student loans and federal grants.

How do I apply for federal work-study?

Because federal work-study is administered through the federal office of student aid, your eligibility is determined using the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). You will use the very same form and online portal that you use to determine eligibility for the other primary forms of federal student aid — student loans and need-based grants.

As you complete your FAFSA, you will see a checkbox on your application denoting that you’d like to be considered for work-study. Check this box.

Upon completing and submitting your FAFSA, you will receive a Student Aid Report (SAR). You should receive your SAR within three weeks of completing your FAFSA. Your SAR will not tell you how big your financial aid package is, nor precisely what type of loan or grant you’ll receive. The SAR is merely a summary of the data you’ve submitted on your FAFSA, as well as an indication of your eligibility for either student loans, need-based grants, work-study, or some combination of all three.

As with need-based loans or grants, your eligibility for work-study will depend on your family’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC). The Expected Family Contribution is a figure which is derived from the sum of a percentage of your family’s net income and a percentage of your family’s net assets.

Be sure to fill out your FAFSA as soon as possible because work-study opportunities are limited and will be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. This means that waiting too long might deprive you of work-study opportunities even if you otherwise qualify for participation.

To learn more about the SAR, EFC, and completing your FAFSA, check out our Focus on the FAFSA.

How does the federal work-study program work?

First and foremost, be aware that not every college or university participates in the federal work-study program. While you may qualify for work-study through the completion of your FAFSA, you’ll need to attend a participating college or university in order to reap the benefits of that eligibility. Contact your college’s office of financial aid to find out if work-study is available, and to learn more about actual working opportunities in your chosen field or academic discipline.

Jobs may be found both on- and off-campus. In many cases, once you’ve qualified for work-study participation, it will be up to you to secure an actual job. According to NerdWallet, while you may qualify for student aid, this does not guarantee you a job. You must take steps on your own to find a position either on- or off-campus to begin earning the awarded sum.

As with federal grants, work-study is given on the basis of financial need and, also like grants, money earned through work-study does not need to be repaid.

Who is eligible for work-study?

As noted above, the first condition of eligibility requires that you attend one of the more than 3000 colleges and universities in the U.S. that participate in the work-study program. Likewise, you must also meet all basic conditions of eligibility for federal student aid as outlined by the FAFSA.

In order to be eligible, you must plan to attend a college or university that is regionally or nationally accredited by a U.S. Department of Education-recognized accreditor. If you already know that your school participates in the federal work-study program, you can deduce that your school is accredited. To learn more about accreditation, take a look at our complete Guide to Accreditation in Higher Education.

If you already know your school’s accreditation status, continue on to the Basic Eligibility Requirements* for federal financial aid, as provided by the Department of Education’s Student Aid Office:

  • Demonstrated financial need
  • U.S. citizenship (with the exception of certain eligible non-citizens)
  • Valid Social Security #
  • Registration with Selective Service (for male applicants)
  • Enrollment or acceptance as a regular student in an eligible degree or certificate program
  • Satisfactory academic progress in college or career school
  • Certified statement denoting the student is not in default on a federal student loan, and that the pending loan will be used for the purposes of education only
  • Evidence of a high-school diploma or General Educational Development (GED) certificate

*Additional requirements may apply to non-U.S citizens, students with criminal convictions, and students with intellectual disabilities.

To learn more about basic student aid eligibility, visit our Focus on the FAFSA.

With respect to work-study eligibility, Nerdwallet notes that work-study opportunities are granted to:

  • Undergraduates with significant financial need who have not previously earned a bachelor’s or graduate degree; and
  • Post-baccalaureate teacher certification students

Nerdwallet points out that students with parents killed in Iraq or Afghanistan after 9/11 could also be eligible for participation, as well as additional financial support through the Pell Grant. Learn more about federal grant programs with a look at our Focus on Federal Student Grants.

As of the 2017-18 school year, the maximum awarded sum was $5,920, though the average amount per student is usually lower than $2000. The size of your overall pre-approved work-study sum will vary based on financial need as well as enrollment status. The sum that you are awarded will dictate how many hours you can work within the program.

This means that you will be allotted a predetermined number of working hours before initiating your work-study program. You will not be allowed to exceed either this number of hours or the sum total of your pre-determined earnings.

It’s also important to note that hourly pay will vary according to position. This means that two students with identical work-study award amounts could ultimately work a different number of hours in their respective positions. Your participation is measured according to the awarded sum, rather than a set number of hours.

Undergraduate work-study participants are typically paid hourly, whereas graduate or professional students may be paid either hourly or according to a set salary. In most cases, you will be paid directly by your school on a monthly basis, unless you otherwise specify that your earnings be used directly to offset expenses such as tuition, housing, or fees.

Is work-study income taxable?

Work-study programs function like real jobs. This means that your earnings are subject to automatic deductions for both federal and state income taxes. However, full-time students in part-time work-study roles are exempt from FICA taxes. This means that you will enjoy a slightly reduced tax burden through work-study, as opposed to a traditional job.

How can I find a work-study job?

Once granted eligibility, it will be up to you to find a job in order to satisfy your work requirements. Many schools will offer a portal for reviewing work-study job listings. You will likely have an array of options both on- and off-campus.

On-campus jobs can include administrative responsibilities in a campus department; library or computer lab work; research assistance, and more. Off-campus opportunities may vary even more widely from non-profit to private companies; from community organizations to healthcare facilities.

If your school doesn’t provide a work-study job portal, or you need further advice on landing a work-study position, contact your school’s financial aid office. But just as with participation in the work-study program itself, remember that your access to job opportunities is on a first-come, first-served basis. This means that the sooner you begin your search for a qualifying job, the better your chances of landing a desirable work-study role.

This is particularly important if you hope to land a job in your intended area of study.

What are the benefits of the work-study program?

Though there is a limit to how much you can earn through work-study, there are numerous benefits to this unique program. As noted above, your tax burden could be slightly reduced as compared to a traditional part-time job. But there’s far more to it than that. Work-study can entail the following benefits:

  • Experience in a real-world work setting. This can be particularly valuable if the job is in your area of study.
  • Flexibility, both in terms of scheduling and location. Work-study employers recognize education as a primary goal and may be more willing to work with you to accommodate courses, studying, and other school-related responsibilities.
  • Networking with working professionals, especially those in your area of study. Work-study managers and other connections can prove valuable future contacts in your search for referrals, mentors, and post-graduate employment.
  • Reduced Student Loan Debt. Work-study wages, like grants or scholarships, do not need to be repaid. This means that any money earned toward college through work-study can reduce your student loan burden.

One final benefit worth noting is that, contrary to earnings from a traditional part-time job, your earnings from work-study will not be counted against you as you fill out next year’s FAFSA. This sum will not be tallied as part of the EFC that the Student Aid office uses to determine your eligibility for future need-based grants.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, you should “be sure to answer the question regarding how much was earned through work-study on your FAFSA accurately. If you do not know the answer, you can contact the financial aid office at your school for help. Some schools will send you a notice in early spring regarding your earnings from the last calendar year to help you file your FAFSA.”

Should I do federal work-study?

Federal work-study participation is not mandatory should you be deemed eligible. It is still up to you to decide that you will or will not accept this opportunity. If you are presented with a promising alternative, such as an internship or a well-paying job in your field, you may decide to dedicate your time to these pursuits in lieu of a federal work-study program.

Certainly, if you feel you can’t handle the demand on your time while maintaining strong academic performance, work-study may not be for you. Your studies should come first.

That said, work-study does afford an array of benefits and opportunities. If you are deemed eligible for work-study, this is an indication of demonstrated financial need. This financial need suggests that you will likely require a combination of loans, grants, and scholarships to help pay for college. The work-study program is a form of aid that, like grants, will not need to be repaid. This makes it a great way to offset the cost of school without taking on a greater student loan burden.

Unless circumstances otherwise prevent you from taking the opportunity, there is a lot to gain.


If you still need further financial support to pay for college, take a look at our Guide to Scholarships for College.

If you need additional tips on securing financial aid at either the federal or state level, check out our Guide to Financial Aid for College.

Check out the College Admissions Process Guide for additional tips on finding, applying to, and getting into the college of your choice.

See our Resources Guide for much more on studying, starting your job search, and more.

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