What is Work-Study? How to Make Use of the Benefits

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Starting college can be stressful for kids and parents. After all, you likely have a lot of questions, and it’s sometimes difficult to find reliable answers. I get it. My son is about to start college, and at this point, my questions far outweigh the answers. For instance, one of my biggest questions is, what is work-study? Is it something my son should apply for? If so, how will it affect his student aid?

I did a ton of research and put together everything I found in this blog. If you’re wondering, what is work-study, you’ve come to the right place to get the answers.

What is Work-Study?

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Work-study is a federally-funded program that helps students meet their tuition and other college expense needs. The program isn’t designed to pay for college, but to reduce the burden. More than half a million students participate in the program annually, according to the Department of Education.

When a student enrolls in the program, they have the chance to work in a flexible, part-time job associated with the program that will help meet their living expenses. These jobs are located on campus and off. The program encourages students to work at nonprofits and other community-based businesses, but some students work at privately-owned businesses.

Average work-study award

According to the Sallie Mae How America Pays for College 2018 report, 16 percent of students use the work-study program to help pay for college. And the average award for those students in 2018 was $1,693.

Pros and Cons of Work-Study

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When asking, what is work-study, it’s important to look at both the pros and cons of the program before deciding whether it’s right for you.

Here is a list of the pros and cons to help you make your decision.


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There are quite a few pros to consider when asking, what is work-study? Here are some to think about.

Limit that debt

No one wants to graduate college with piles of student loan debt, and a work-study program can help you reduce it. The wages you earn from the job can be used to reduce your tuition or pay for your living expenses. And a lower student loan debt will make things easier after you graduate.

Little competition

If you’re the only student applying for a work-study job, chances are you’ll get hired. Unlike the job openings you’ll find in the private community, employers of work-study jobs can only hire the students who apply under the program.

Schedule it in

If you have an exam on Friday morning and need to take Thursday afternoon off of work to study for it, the chances are slim that a traditional job would allow it. But work-study employers are sensitive to the needs of students, and the jobs are designed to allow you to put college first.

Gig it up

When you work a work-study program, nothing says that you can’t also have a regular job. Because work-study jobs don’t pay as well as many traditional jobs, you can enjoy the perks of one of these jobs and take another regular job to reduce your reliance on student loans even further.


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There are also some cons to the work-study program that you need to think about. Here are a few.

Choosiness is not an option

Just because you apply for a work-study job as a teacher’s aide doesn’t mean you’ll get it. That means you could end up working in the student admission’s office or as a janitor instead. Some colleges assign the on-campus work-study jobs, and you don’t get to choose which one you will receive.

Get used to the minimum

Many, but not all, work-study jobs only pay minimum wage. That means you might do work that would pay you more if you held the same job in the private sector.

Yep, there are restrictions

When granted a work-study award, you are assigned a specific number of hours that you’re allowed to work. Your allowable hours may or may not be enough to help you pay your expenses. Some employers will extend your hours above the award and continue to pay you the same rate as you were making under it.

Work-Study vs. a Part-Time Job

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At this point, you may be wondering whether it’s smarter to ask, what is work-study and then take one of the available jobs or find secular employment. And the truth is, it’s a personal decision.

Experts agree that students shouldn’t work more than 20 hours while carrying a full load in college. And that’s why the work-study program typically limits a student’s work hours to 20. But for some students, that’s just not enough to get through school. They need to earn more to help pay for their tuition and living expenses.

So, you have three choices. You can take a work-study job and concentrate mostly on school and your studies. Or you can find a secular job that pays more but won’t be as sensitive to your college needs. Or you can do both. Take a work-study job, and then supplement it with another job in the private sector.

Most experts agree that after the second semester of your sophomore year, you should ditch the work-study program and work at a secular job. This will enable you to reduce your reliance on student loans more substantially. That’s because the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) accepts tax returns from two years prior to the filing date, and the jobs you take after that doesn't affect the amount of your student aid.

How to Apply for Work-Study

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When you fill out the FAFSA, you are asked if you want to participate in the work-study program. Select Yes.

Checking this box doesn’t give you instant approval for a work-study job. And if you later decide that you don’t want one, you don't have to take it.

Once you submit your FAFSA, you will receive an award letter in a few weeks. On it, you will find information about your award money, including whether or not the program approved you for work-study. If so, you will find the amount of money you are eligible to earn in the work-study program.

I’m Approved — Now What?

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Once you get accepted into the work-study program, you’ll undoubtedly want to ask a few questions. You now have the answer to, what is work-study? But there is a lot more to learn.

Here are a few things you need to know about the program.

Let the job hunt begin

Just because you received a work-study award, that doesn’t mean the college will automatically assign you a job. While some do, most of the time, you are responsible for finding your own job.

To find a list of available jobs, talk to the financial aid office at your college. Be sure to ask about the college's recommendations for looking for a work-study job. Most colleges offer work-study jobs on campus and also have a list of private sector companies that offer the jobs. Keep in mind that all work-study students will apply for the same jobs. So, it makes sense to put in your application as soon as possible.

Show me the Benjamins

When working a work-study job, you get paid much the same way you do in any other job. Instead of your work-study money going directly towards your tuition, you get a paycheck. Federal law dictates that you get paid at least once a month. You can use this money toward your tuition, or you can use it to help pay the rent, buy food, or even gas to get you to and from school every day.

Don’t get too comfortable

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When learning what is work-study, you will quickly find out that some jobs are great and in-demand among students. The employer is great, or in some cases, the job is fun and relaxing. For instance, working in the student library is usually a great job.

But don’t think that just because you scored a great job this year, that you’re a shoo-in for it next year. What is work-study? It’s a program that reassigns jobs every year. But instead of lamenting the fact that you may not get the same great job next year, look forward to another job that could turn out to be just as wonderful.

It’s an hourly thing

You may need to work 20 hours a week to make ends meet, but your work-study job could only provide you with 10. Each job is different, and the program doesn’t guarantee that you will fulfill the amount of work-study hours in your award.

But you can talk to your employer and ask them to boost your hours. Or, if necessary, you can take on a second job in the private sector to increase your earnings.

Schedules matter

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When working a work-study job and going to school full time, things can get a little tricky with scheduling. You will need to plan ahead and keep a tight schedule to make it work. Whether you use a planner or keep track of your schedule on your laptop, it’s an important key to success.

And don’t forget that if you participate in work-study, your boss is more likely to understand if you need to take time off to study or attend an event for the school.

How Work-Study Affects Next Year’s Financial Aid

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When you’re applying for financial aid, you want as big of a reward as you can get. The more you get, the less in student loans you will have to take out — and payback later. That’s why when asking, what is work-study, you should understand how your earnings will affect your next year’s student aid package.

As long as you only earn up to the amount awarded to you, your work-study income will not count against you for next year’s financial aid. For instance, if your award is $3,000 in work-study, you can earn $3,000 without it affecting next year’s award.

You will have to report the $3,000 on the FAFSA application the next year, but you will enter it in a separate box that identifies the earnings as work-study. That way, it won’t increase the amount of your Estimated Family Contribution (EFC).

On the other hand, you will have to report anything you earn over the award amount and it will reduce your student aid for the next year.

Answered: What is Work-Study?

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You started this article by asking what is work-study. By now, you understand that it’s just another tool to help you get as much financial aid as you can to help reduce the number of student loans you have to take out. When asking, what is work-study, you should learn all you can about the program before you decide whether or not it’s right for you.

Do you participate in a work-study program? If so, we would love to hear about your experiences in the comments section below!


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