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Understanding the Federal Work-Study Program

Suzanne Shaffer


When my daughter applied to college, we completed the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) hoping to receive some form of financial aid. As the acceptances arrived, followed by the award letters, we qualified for federal student loans. We also discovered that every college added Federal Work-Study to their financial aid award package.

Being new to the college application process, we assumed, incorrectly, that she was guaranteed a job when she got to college. We were wrong. In fact, there were many aspects of the Federal Work-Study Program we did not understand and learned during her first year on campus.

Is Federal Work-Study part of your student’s financial aid award? Here's what you need to know about how it works.

1. Federal Work-Study funds are provided to colleges by the U.S. Department of Education.

Around 3,400 colleges and universities have a Federal Work-Study Program and the federal government provides money to the schools that participate. The amount given to each school reflects the financial needs of the student body and the number of work-study jobs available.

Schools decide which students should receive work-study as part of their broader financial aid package. In order to qualify for work-study funds, students must complete the FAFSA and indicate that they'd like to be considered for Federal Work-Study.

2. You can check your eligibility for these funds before applying to college.

To get an idea of whether your student will qualify for Federal Work-Study, use the Federal Student Aid Estimator on the Federal Student Aid website. Based on the financial information you provide and national award averages, this calculates how much financial aid, including work-study aid, your student is likely to receive.

Students who don’t qualify for Federal Work-Study may still be awarded institutional work-study. These opportunities are typically offered by various academic offices or departments and are paid for by university funds, rather than a combination of institutional and federal monies.

3. Your student doesn't have to accept Federal Work-Study funds.

As with any form of financial aid included in the award package, you are not obligated to accept the work-study funds. If your student doesn't need the additional funds, feel free to decline them.

4. Being awarded Federal Work-Study doesn't guarantee your student a job.

Accepting the Federal Work-Study funds you’re offered is just the first step. In order to receive this money, your student must find a work-study job. As you can imagine, those jobs on campus are highly valued. My daughter waited until move-in day to start looking for one. By then, all the work-study jobs were taken. She had to wait until the following semester when jobs became available.

5. It's the student’s responsibility to find and apply for these jobs.

Some schools may match students to jobs, but most schools require the student to find, apply for, and interview for positions on their own, just like any other job. If your student is awarded Federal Work-Study, the school should provide instructions about how to look for and obtain a suitable position. Unfortunately, my daughter’s school did not.

If you don’t receive instructions, contact the financial aid office or the career center to find out whether positions are available, how to apply, and how the process works at your student's college. Do this immediately after accepting admission and approving your student's award package.

In some cases, this process will entail logging in to a digital platform where work-study jobs are listed. Often students can apply for jobs directly within the platform. Other institutions post all available positions publicly, and it's the student’s responsibility to reach out about job openings.

6. Not all work-study jobs are on campus.

The availability of work-study positions includes community service options with non-profit employers. This means some work-study jobs are available for off-campus work.

If your student is curious about securing a community service work-study position that might compliment their degree path, contact the financial aid office or the career center on campus.

7. Work-study funds aren't applied directly to tuition.

Unlike other types of financial aid, work-study earnings aren't applied directly to your tuition and fees. Students who are awarded Work-Study receive the funds in a paycheck as they earn them, based on hours worked, just like a normal job.

Your student can use these earnings as they see fit. My daughter used hers to cover day-to-day expenses and her books. Don’t expect these earnings to cover large expenses like tuition and room and board since your student is paid either bi-weekly or monthly.

It’s a good idea to talk with your student about the use of these funds. If you're budgeting these funds for books and other personal expenses, discuss the importance of using the funds for these things only. Since your student will have complete control of them, it’s essential that they understand how the money should be used.

8. Pay and hours worked may vary.

Work-study jobs vary in qualifications and responsibilities, so the pay will depend on the job that your student is hired to do. Pay may also depend on college policies and the minimum wage requirements in the state.

How many hours they work each week will depend on the type of job they get and the employer’s expectations. Most work-study jobs for students will work around their class schedule and only require between 10–20 hours per week.

9. Federal Work-Study is not guaranteed from year to year.

Factors that determine whether or not your student receives Federal Work-Study from year to year include your family income or financial need, whether your student used the work-study funds that were offered to them in a prior year, and how much work-study funding the college receives that year.

Your family must complete the FAFSA every year in order to qualify for work-study funds. Students who file the FAFSA early and indicate that they're interested in Federal Work-Study will have a better chance of being awarded funds from the program.

10. There are other kinds of work-study programs.

In some states, like Texas, there are work-study programs funded by the state legislatures. These programs function much like Federal Work-Study but are funded by the state. Eligibility criteria and funding levels differ, and some states don’t have their own work-study programs at all.

These opportunities are usually open only to residents attending schools in their home states. Both public and private institutions can participate in state work-study programs, and the schools generally determine which students will be offered this type of work-study as part of their financial aid packages.

Research your own state’s approach, because your student may need to complete an additional application to be eligible for state work-study positions. You can search for those programs on the state government website.

11. Work-study earnings are removed from your FAFSA calculation.

One of the benefits of earning income through a Federal Work-Study position is that those earnings don't count against your student when they complete the FAFSA form. There’s a question on the FAFSA that asks how much was earned through Work-Study during a particular tax year; make sure to answer that question accurately so the amount can be factored out.

With a regular job, the government can reduce your student's financial aid eligibility. Income from a work-study job does not reduce financial aid eligibility.

Consider the benefits of a work-study job versus regular employment.

The obvious benefit is that your student's earnings won’t reduce their financial aid eligibility. But there are others.

With Work-Study, employers are required to consider your student's class schedule when assigning work hours, whereas regular employers are not. Many work-study jobs are on campus, allowing your student to easily commute to and from work without needing to drive or take public transportation.

Additionally, your student will be making important contacts on campus that could help them with their future career goals. My daughter and her friends who took advantage of Work-Study were able to secure interviews with employers who were looking for college applicants recommended by the college administration. The networking they did through these jobs really helped during their senior year job search.

The best benefit of all: Your student doesn't have to pay back work-study earnings — they do not add to student debt.

Visit the U.S. Department of Education, and your college’s financial aid or career services departments, for more information about the Federal Work-Study Program.

Suzanne Shaffer counsels students and families through her blog, Parenting for College. Her advice has been featured in print and online on Huffington Post, Yahoo Finance, U.S. News College, TeenLife, Smart College Visit, Road2College and more.
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