If your financial aid award includes work-study, you should understand what it is. Work study falls under the self-help column of financial aid, meaning it’s not free money. You have to find a qualifying job and work at the job to earn this portion of your financial aid award.

Work-study is a federally subsidized job at your college or university. It may be an on- or off-campus job. It may even be an internship. For undergraduates, work-study is paid by the hour and has to pay at least the federal minimum wage, which will be $9.50 for the coming school year, or the prevailing state or local minimum wage if higher. A work-study award comes with a dollar amount attached and work-study earnings cannot exceed that amount.  

Students who receive work-study as part of their financial aid package should note several things:

  • Getting work-study is not the same as getting a job. The student still needs to actually find a qualifying job, and there is no job guarantee with work-study. (Good news: schools tend to love work-study for campus jobs because the Department of Education subsidizes up to 75% of the student’s pay, meaning that many schools prioritize work-study recipients for on-campus jobs. Thus, any student who has work-study should mention that in applying for on-campus jobs whether or not the job states work-study eligibility.)
  • Although it’s included in your award letter, income from a work-study job doesn’t typically align with the school’s payment terms. The student will receive a normal paycheck from their work-study job, meaning they might be receiving $100 or so per week over the course of the academic term, whereas schools typically expect tuition and room and board to be paid upfront or subject to fees for payment plans.
  • Work-study earnings are capped at the amount stated in the award letter. Suppose a student has $1,000 of work-study per quarter (10 weeks), earns $12 per hour and works 10 hours per week. Their work-study award will run out in the middle of the eighth week of the semester. While this is not necessarily a bad thing from an academic perspective, the student may need continued income and in many cases would need to find a different job, since the work-study job is subsidized and thus might not exist without the subsidy. So a student needing more than their work-study award should clarify upfront with the employer whether they would be able to continue working after the work-study runs out.

On the plus side, since work-study is considered financial aid, earnings from a work-study job are not included in the student income section of the FAFSA. Students who receive work-study should try for work-study jobs first or ask prospective on-campus employers if the position is eligible for work-study.

The other aspect of work-study worth noting is that it’s subject to a lot of the same goofiness as other federal financial aid, including out-of-date formulas and assumptions. The last major overhaul of work-study was in 1979. One provision was that schools that already received a lot of work-study dollars would continue to do so; another is that the funding formula is based on the gap between need and cost of attendance. That means that students at higher-priced private schools, particularly those in the Northeast, are more likely to receive work-study than are students at public schools. This article has a great explanation of the work-study system and its many shortcomings in the current college environment.