For students

Everything You Need to Know about Work-Study

In addition to loans and scholarships, there's another resource out there to help cover the steep cost of college. Say hello to work-study, a federal program that essentially pays current students to work part-time gigs.

The program, in a nutshell, is a form of financial aid that's paid directly to your bank account. Employers receive federal subsidies for employing work-study students, so it's in their best interest to hire them for part-time work. For students, it's a great way to supplement living expenses and bring in extra cash while in school. It can also help reduce how much you need to borrow in student loans.

How to Qualify for Work-Study

Work-study is open to all students who qualify—full-time and part-time; undergrads, grad students, and even professional students. To take advantage of it, the first step is to fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and indicate that you'd like to be eligible for work-study. (It's a straightforward question you'll see on the application.) Your school also has to be enrolled in the Federal Work-Study Program.

There's also one other requirement: you have to demonstrate financial need, which also plays a role in determining how much you'll be able to actually earn. Your school's funding level and when you apply (more on this in a bit) also impacts your earning power. Either way, you can expect to earn at least minimum wage, sometimes more.

Now that you've got the basics down, here's everything else you need to know about work-study.

Where to Work-Study

Work-study jobs must be performed through a qualified employer, which may be on or off campus. Eligible employers typically include non-profit organizations and other agencies that serve the public interest. That's not to say the private sector is off limits, though. According to the Department of Education, some schools team up with for-profit employers to offer work-study positions. To qualify, the work itself has to support your studies.

One of the benefits of work-study is that the jobs themselves can be geared toward supporting your course of study. So in addition to a paycheck, you're also getting relevant experience to help beef up your resume. It isn't unlike a paid internship in this way; you're learning on the job and also making important connections that will likely come in handy when it comes time to start job hunting after graduation. So whether your work-study is spent researching in a lab or supporting campus administrators, consider how it could add to your resume.

What to Consider Before Enrolling

Work-study is an attractive program because it can ultimately help you graduate with less debt. Just keep in mind that instead of the money going directly toward your tuition, you'll likely get an allowance of sorts, typically deposited into your bank account like any other job. From there, you can apply the cash toward school expenses. (Side note: this makes budgeting extremely important—the last thing you want to do is burn through your cash.) Your school's financial aid office might allow you to apply your work-study earnings directly to your tuition instead, but every institution is different.

Of course, there are caps on how much you can actually earn. Again, your level of financial need plays a big part. On top of that, the Department of Education adheres to some specific payment stipulations. Undergraduate students, for example, have to be paid hourly, while graduate and professional students are eligible to be paid a salary. Your school may also limit the number of hours you're allowed to work in a given week if your course schedule and/or academic performance don't meet certain standards. The takeaway here is to check in with your school to get clear on all the requirements.

Your earning power also ties into when you actually apply for work-study. Given all its benefits, it goes without saying that it's a popular program. Positions can be heavily sought after, making the competition tight. In other words, the sooner you apply, the better your chances of landing your preferred work-study gig. Connect with your school's financial aid office as early in the academic year as possible to get an accurate feel for what's available.

Before rushing in, take stock of your current workload and day-to-day responsibilities. If you're in a demanding program, have a family, or are working another job, balancing another commitment may be overwhelming. The last thing you want is to jeopardize your studies by burning the candle at both ends. The good news is, your work-study employer may be more lenient than an outside company regarding time off for academic activities like your final exams.

Figuring out the best way to pay for college is extremely case-specific. If it fits into your personal and academic life, work-study is one way to ease that burden.

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