How to Pay for College with Federal Work Study


What is Federal Work Study?

A federal work study program (FWS) is a type of financial aid that provides a steady part time job to eligible students with financial need. Work study jobs may build skills, increase earnings and reduce reliance on student loans. Each year, students rely on part time employment to help pay for tuition, groceries, rent and textbooks. Th FWS program also encourages community service which you may work on campus at college. Financial aid may be available to those who qualify.

Sallie Mae study found that in the academic year 2020 about 67% of families receive a financial aid award offer from the school a student attended. This letter may include federal grants and loans, work/study and scholarships. Of these families, 18% used work study funds. Users received an average of $1,847 per year. That’s up from 2019 when 14% of families received an average work study award of $1,808 to offset college or career school costs. 

As only one part of college funding, an FWS job may still make an impact. For Black and Hispanic students these jobs met 2% of total college costs. It is slightly less for white students where work study funds offset 1% of the cost of attendance.

Who is Eligible for Work Study?

Federal work study awards tend to be for low and middle income students. As an undergraduate, graduate or professional student, you may qualify. The main eligibility criteria for a federal work study award is financial need. Need equals the cost of attendance of college minus estimated family contribution or EFC.

To be eligible for any federal aid, you must also meet the following criteria:

  • Be able to work legally in the U.S. (U.S. citizen, U.S. National or eligible non citizen)
  • Have a valid Social Security number (SSN)
  • If a male, be registered with Selective Service
  • Keep up satisfactory academic progress based on your school’s standards
  • Enroll at least half time in an eligible program at a participating college or university
  • Sign the certification statement on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®) stating that you don’t owe a refund or repayment, or be in default in another financial aid program
  • Show you qualify to obtain a college or career school education. That means you have a high school diploma, GED or eligible home school equal

How Do You Apply for the Work Study Program?

Like any other federal aid programs, you may apply for a work study by filling out a FAFSA®. It is available as of October 1st each year. Let’s go through a few basic steps to filling out the FAFSA.

1. Create an FSA ID

Using your SSN number, you create a username and password. Your FSA ID allows you to sign the form electronically and access the myStudentAid app. If you are a dependent student, one of your parents also needs an FSA ID to sign the form.

2. Get your documents together

The form asks for information about you including name, date of birth and address. You must provide SSN numbers for you and your parents if you are a dependent. If you have a driver’s license you must also provide that. In case you are not a U.S. citizen, you may provide your Alien Registration number.

Another section asks for a complete list of family taxed and untaxed income. Taxed income includes all forms from the IRS. Untaxed income includes:

  • Child support received
  • Interest income
  • Veterans’ non education benefits (for you and your parents if you are a dependent student)

3. List of colleges and /or career schools

You must list at least one school to receive the information from your FAFSA®. These schools use the form to determine the types and amounts of aid you may receive, including work study. 

4. Sign and submit by or before the deadlines

You (and your parents if a dependent) must sign the form electronically. Filing early may be useful for colleges and states that often have limited funds.

How Much Can You Earn in Work Study? 

Work study students tend to earn at least the federal minimum wage. Though the amount may vary depending on the type of work you do and the skills it requires. 

Your total WS award reflects:

  • When you apply 
  • Your level of financial need 
  • Your school’s funding level 

The average work study funding also reflects the type of school you attend according to Sallie Mae study.

  • 2 year public schools awarded an average of $144
  • 4 year public schools awarded an average of $310
  • 4 year private schools awarded an average of $509

Can I work as many hours as I want?

No. If you receive a financial aid letter for a work study, it specifies a set amount of work study earnings. Also, when it comes to assigning the number of hours, your employer or school’s financial aid office takes into account your class schedule and your academic progress.

How Will I Get Paid from Work Study Program?

How you’re paid depends partly on whether you’re an undergraduate or graduate student. Undergraduate students tend to receive an hourly wage. Graduate and professional students may get either a salary or hourly wage, depending on the work study position.

As a rule, your school must pay you at least once a month. You could also use direct deposit to your bank account. You may also ask that the money go back to the school for use towards tuition, fees, room and board.

What are Typical Work Study Jobs?

Both campus and off campus jobs may be available. You could be a lab assistant, tutor, cashier, food service worker, and more. In general, students who receive the funds have to check job listings posted by the Student Employment office. Once you find a job, you may have to submit a resume, interview and wait to find out if you were accepted. 

The program also tries to pair students with jobs related to their major. Some of these employment opportunities may be with for profit employers. Nonprofit organizations or at a public agency with a community service focus may offer federal work study. 

7 On Campus Work Study Jobs

For campus based jobs, your employer tends to be your college. Here are some common federal work study jobs that many schools offer.

1. Laboratory Assistant

If you are a college science student this job may help you gain research skills while carrying out general lab tasks. You may collect samples, do data entry and other tasks.

2. Admissions Student Assistant

This type of admin role may be ideal for someone organized who has excellent computer and communication skills. 

3. Research Assistant

These jobs tend to be for students who are both attentive to detail and have organizational skills. Often you need a background that lines up with the research project. 

4. Math Tutor

Tutoring jobs are for “A” students who have completed and passed the courses they tutor. 

5. Office Assistant

Colleges often need office assistants in various departments. Due to Covid many of these jobs are remote and take writing, editing and people skills.

6. Cashier/Sales Clerk

Many campuses have cafes and book stores. These jobs may come with flexible schedules and may appeal to students who live close to a store or cafe.

7. Food Service Worker

These team members may work in campus cafeterias. It isn’t a given, but some do provide meals and flexible work shifts. 

What Happens if You Decline Work Study? 

If you decide not to take work study, you may not receive it in your financial aid offer the following year. Federal work study is not mandatory and you may have the option to convert the amount offered into a loan.

Eligible students must also continue to meet the basic criteria to be able to keep receiving it. To do so, you must follow your school’s policy about making satisfactory progress. This often relates to taking a certain number of credits, code of conduct and grade point average (GPA). When deciding whether to take a work study, you may want to look at your educational expenses, budget and other sources of aid you’re offered.

Many colleges offer need or merit based scholarships which are both a kind of gift aid. For need based awards, a school is likely to use your EFC number. Merit awards are about grades, test scores, leadership and other talents. After parent income and savings, the next largest funding source was grants and scholarships, which covered 25% of the total cost of college for academic year 2019 to 2020.  Families who relied on scholarships reported an average amount of $7,923. Grant users reported an average of $6,030.

Federal Pell Grant is for in need students from the federal government. It is also a kind of gift aid that that one does not repay except under certain conditions. Like if you withdraw early, change enrollment status or receive other aid that reduces your need. 

Student loans is money you borrow and pay back with interest. With federal loans, the lender is the government. You may also borrow from other lenders such as banks, credit cards, colleges etc. but these come with different terms.

Should You Take Both a Part time Job and Work Study?

It might be a good idea to take both a part time job and federal work study. Working in college may reduce your college costs. Also, having a job while in school or during the summer may help prepare you for life after college, as well. According to the NCES in 2018, more part time (81%) than full time (43%) students have jobs while enrolled in school. Among undergraduate students enrolled part time during this time, 47% worked 35 or more hours per week. 

Since earnings and hours for a work study may have limited hours, it may be possible to take a non work study job too. This depends on what kind of job you take and how much you are able to handle.  

One of the more important things to think about is that for any regular job you take, you must report this as taxable income on your FAFSA. What that does is boost your EFC while lowering the amount of aid you may be eligible to receive. Work study earnings do not factor into the EFC so these programs may be helpful for the extra cash.

Another factor is time and how much energy you have to keep up with your studies. Remember that to continue to receive aid (perhaps from your college and state too), you must continue to make progress towards your college degree. 

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