Work-Study Explained: How it Works (A Simple Guide)

Written by: Kristyn Pilgrim
Updated: 3/16/20

The term “work-study” can seem self-explanatory: It’s a program designed to help people obtain employment while in college. Because so many students struggle to afford basic necessities, these part-time gigs are a helpful source of income. Simple enough, right?

Unfortunately, this straightforward concept can get complicated quickly. Dig into the details of work-study opportunities, and you’ll encounter a world of forms and intersecting bureaucracies. 

Which applications do you need to complete? Who runs the program, your school or the government? If you qualify for work-study, are you guaranteed a gig? Does your paycheck go towards tuition, or directly into your pocket?

Every year, thousands of students grapple with the federal work-study system, navigating its demands successfully. With a little help, you can do the same, seizing a great opportunity to offset the costs of being in college. 

In this guide, we’ll take you through everything you need to know about the federal work-study program. We’ll explain how it’s funded and intended to function, showing how it actually helps students make ends meet. From there, we’ll get into the details of applying for work-study and actually getting a gig. Once you’re done with this article, you’ll be able to decide if work-study is right for you.

Work-Study Basics: What It Is and What It Does

The Federal Work-Study program (sometimes called the FWS) is designed to help college students find part-time work and offset education expenses. The program is overseen by the U.S. Department of Education and represents one form of financial aid that the government makes available to students who need help with college expenses. 

While the program relies on federal funding, participating schools play a large role in allocating money to their students and administering work-study opportunities. Currently, about 3,400 colleges, universities, and professional schools participate in the work-study program to some extent. 

The administrative technicalities of work-study differ somewhat from school to school, and extensive regulations govern the program. But the fundamentals of the program can be summed up in relatively simple terms:

  • The Department of Education provides money to schools participating in work-study programs. The amount given to each school reflects the financial needs of the student body and the number of work-study jobs available. 
  • Schools determine which students should receive work-study as part of their broader financial aid package (which also includes loans and grants). If students are awarded work-study, the school designates the maximum amount that they can earn through the program.
  • Students find designated work-study jobs on campus or in the local community. Once hired, students begin earning the amount of money specified in their work-study award. These jobs include a diverse set of roles, but they are all part-time positions that students can balance with their studies. 

This system may seem a lot like applying for any part-time job, and it is in many respects. But the work-study program is distinct from other employment opportunities because of the role of federal funding. For each work-study job, the federal government chips in a portion of the student’s payment, while the school pays the rest. In some cases, the government foots most (or all) of the bill. 

That means that schools have a big incentive to hire work-study students for a variety of positions across campus. They can help their students make ends meet through solid part-time gigs — and pay a lot less for the labor.

For students, the benefits are significant as well. Many work-study positions are interesting, fun, or fulfilling, and they’re designed to be flexible enough to accommodate your studies. Moreover, these jobs are designated for work-study students specifically, so the pool of competition is much smaller. 

Most importantly, work-study can be an excellent way to bolster your resume while earning the cash you need to afford student life. As you look towards life after graduation, who wouldn’t want less debt and more work experience? 

Who Is Eligible for Work-study, and How Do I Apply?

Work-study opportunities are available to a wide array of students on many educational paths. Ultimately, schools decide which of their students will be offered work-study awards, and how much they’ll be able to earn. To be considered for work-study, you must meet these basic eligibility criteria. 

  • You must be a current undergraduate, graduate, or professional student (students enrolled in vocational programs qualify as professional students).
  • You must be enrolled part-time or full-time in a degree-seeking program.
  • You must be accepted or currently enrolled in a school that participates in the Federal Work-Study Program.
  • You must demonstrate a need for financial assistance in affording the costs of college and associated expenses.

In awarding work-study opportunities and other forms of aid, most schools take a rigorous, systematic approach to assessing students’ financial needs. They do so by assessing each students’ circumstances and the total pool of funding available. Unfortunately, these institutions are often unable to offer work-study jobs to all students who might benefit from them.

To apply for financial aid, you must complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, better known as the FAFSA. This extensive document gives schools a sense of your financial resources. Once you complete it, you’ll need to send it to the schools to which you are applying (or the one you currently attend). 

To apply for work-study specifically, you’ll need to indicate your interest on the FAFSA. There is a specific question about work-study (question 31 at the time of this writing), and you’ll need to select “Yes” for schools to consider you for a work-study award. 

If I’m Awarded Work-study, Am I Guaranteed a Job?

In effect, a work-study grant is really a green light to hunt for opportunities. Your school is committing to give you a certain amount of funds if you are hired for a work-study position. Unfortunately, that “if” can make all the difference.

A work-study grant does not guarantee that you will be hired for a work-study job. You will still need to find an appropriate opportunity, apply for it, and get hired (the next section covers this process specifically). Only once you’re hired will the work-study money start to flow in your direction. 

Don’t get discouraged, however. After all, schools want their students to utilize work-study awards: If work-study funds go unused, these institutions are leaving federal money on the table, and key jobs around campus go unfilled. Accordingly, colleges generally strive to help students find suitable opportunities, as we’ll discuss in more detail below.

It’s also worth noting that you are not obligated to accept a work-study position just because your school awards you work-study funding. If you find another form of employment that seems more promising, you can ignore the work-study option entirely. 

How Do I Find and Apply for Work-study Jobs?

If you’re awarded work-study, your school will provide instructions pertaining to searching for and obtaining a suitable position. In some instances, this process will entail logging into a digital platform on which work-study jobs are listed. In many cases, you can apply for jobs directly within the platform. 

Other institutions post all available positions publicly, and it’s incumbent upon students to reach out about job openings. However they choose to do it, schools are in charge of specific job listings and assignments, not the federal government.

At most schools, this system is administered by a department intended to help students find employment (whether in a work-study capacity or not). It could be part of your school’s financial aid office, or nestled under another umbrella, such as the “career services department.” If you’re struggling to find a solid work-study job, reach out to them to see if they can aid in your search. 

Whatever the process at your school, it will be helpful to have an updated resume on hand. Even if a resume isn’t explicitly required, you’ll impress by providing one. 

What Kinds of Work-study Jobs are Available?

Many students are surprised to learn just how numerous and varied work-study positions can be. Indeed, while each institution determines its own approach to work-study, most colleges offer a mix of service, administrative, research, and teaching roles. 

As one might expect, the qualifications necessary for work-study jobs can differ significantly. Some jobs require a great attitude, but no particular aptitude. Other demands specific skills and experience and, therefore, may be tied to a student’s past academic performance. 

Here are some popular and/or desirable work-study roles performed by students on their respective campuses. This list is by no means exhaustive, but it should provide a good sense of the opportunities available:

  • Teaching and tutoring roles: Teaching assistants and tutors are often work-study recipients. They usually earn these positions by excelling in the subjects they teach to others.
  • Research roles: From the lab to the library, many students earn money by helping faculty complete research projects. Again, these students earn their spots through academic excellence.
  • Admissions and student life roles: Want to lead campus tours for prospective students? How about leading orientation groups for freshman or serving as a resident assistant (RA)? Work-study students often perform these gigs.
  • Administrative roles: From managing paperwork and correspondence to handling incoming calls, every department needs a work-study student to handle business.
  • Other services: Maybe you’re the tech-savvy type destined for I.T. services or an athlete who’d feel at home checking IDs at the gym. In many such roles, work-study students keep colleges running. 

If these options don’t speak to you, you can also look off-campus for work-study fulfillment. At most colleges, a portion of work-study funding is reserved for jobs in the local community, usually at public agencies or nonprofits dedicated to public service. 

How Do I Get Paid for Work-study, and How Much Can I Make?

According to the Department of Education regulations, students employed in work-study jobs cannot make less than the federal minimum wage ($7.25 at the time of this writing). Additionally, in places where the state or local laws mandate a higher minimum wage, work-study pay must satisfy those laws. While all undergraduates are paid on an hourly basis, some graduate-level work-study positions may be salaried.

Schools are usually accountable for paying students and must do so at least once a month. If a student works in an off-campus position, however, they are paid by their employer instead. In most instances, students receive payment for their hours via check or direct deposit, though students can request that their earnings be debited directly to their student account. 

This system permits students to determine how to spend their earnings: While many use this money for educational expenses, they’re not required to do so. In this sense, compensation for work-study is a lot like getting paid at any job.

These earnings can be substantial: In one recent study, students earned an average of $2,649 per year in their work-study jobs. However, you can’t earn more than the total work-study grant awarded by your school. 

You should keep this in mind as you search for a work-study role. You’ll need to find a job in which the hours and hourly rate won’t surpass your total award. If you can earn a maximum of $1,500 for the academic year, for example, you might look for a gig requiring just a few hours per week. 

Do I Have to Apply for Work-study Again Every Year?

Federal work-study opportunities are part of the broader range of student aid provided by the U.S. government. To stay eligible for these benefits, you must complete the FAFSA every year and submit it to your school. Thankfully, the FAFSA website doesn’t make you start from scratch: With the “Renewal” option, much of the info from the year before carries over.

Your school will then review your financial circumstances, determining whether you still qualify for work-study. Because funding varies annually, you may not be offered the same work-study grant as you were the year before, even if your financial needs haven’t changed. Accordingly, experts recommend submitting the FAFSA early to maximize your chances of a work-study grant. 

Once granted work-study, you’ll need to navigate your school’s process for obtaining a specific position. If you love your work-study position and want to keep it next year, let your supervisor know. They may be able to coordinate with you and save the position for you.

Are There Other Kinds of Work-study Programs?

So far, we’ve discussed federal work-study programs, which utilize funds from the U.S. Department of Education. But certain students may benefit from a slightly different category of employment opportunity: state work-study programs. 

These programs function much like federal work-study, but they’re funded by state legislatures instead. Eligibility criteria and funding levels differ, and some states don’t have their own work-study programs at all. 

However, some basic rules generally apply: 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 these institutions generally determine which students will be offered work-study as part of their financial aid packages. 

In short, the federal government may not be your only shot at a work-study opportunity. Research your own state’s approach, because you may need to complete an additional application to be eligible for state work-study positions. 

Offsetting Expenses: As a Student — and Beyond

After reading through this guide, you should have a basic understanding of how work-study operates. More importantly, we hope you’ve gained some sense of whether a work-study position might be advantageous to you. 

As we’ve noted throughout this article, work-study jobs differ tremendously, compensating at different levels, and demanding various skills. But they share some key advantages for students, such as a limited pool of eligible applicants and the flexibility to accommodate class schedules. If you hope to depart college with a degree and some valuable work experience, a work-study position may be the perfect solution.

That being said, work-study roles are hardly the only form of viable employment available to students. If you’re ineligible for work-study or can’t find a position that suits your preferences, there are plenty of other part-time jobs to consider. Plus, as the gig economy presents new opportunities, you have more ways than ever to make ends meet.

Even once you graduate, you may need to get creative about managing expenses while launching your career. For many young professionals, it can be tough to pay down student loans on an entry-level salary.

But whether you’re still in school or repaying your loans right now, you don’t have to tackle these issues alone. At CollegeFinance.com, we’ve got the insights and straightforward advice you need to make smart money decisions — before, during, or after college.