How Can Federal Work Study Help You Pay for College?

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As you fill out the FAFSA each year, you may notice a question that asks whether or not you are interested in Federal Work Study (FWS). I never checked this box when I was in school, and to this day it remains one of my biggest financial aid regrets.

Just what is work study, and how can the Federal Work Study program help you pay for college or graduate school? Read on to find out.

Federal Work Study is a form of financial aid

What is work study, exactly? As opposed to scholarships, grants, and loans — which simply require that you meet the eligibility criteria and make satisfactory academic progress — work study requires that you work at a job, either on or off campus, to earn the money.

Like scholarships and grants (but unlike loans), work study is a type of financial aid that does not have to be paid back. Undergraduate, graduate, and professional students in financial need are eligible for the work study program.

Although the rules of the Federal Work Study program state that you can only work part-time, you are guaranteed to make the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour. Additionally, work-study aid is exempt from FICA taxes, which means that your paychecks will be bigger because Social Security and Medicaid taxes will not be withheld.

Benefits of Federal Work Study

In addition to decreasing the amount of loans that you will need to take out to pay for school, there are many additional benefits to the work study program. Here are just a few:

1. You’ll work in a job that interests you.

Unlike most federal aid, which is awarded directly to the student, work-study funds are given to institutions of higher education to be allocated at their discretion. However, one of the stipulations of the funds is that they should be used to provide jobs that are related to students’ courses of study.

For example, you might be assigned to work in the front office of the department of your major. You could also work off-campus in a job that relates to your course of study, depending on the relationships that your university has built with other organizations in your community.

This means your job will be relevant to what you are studying. Beats waiting tables or slinging coffee, doesn’t it?

2. Your employer is required to work around your school schedule.

While most part-time jobs allow you to indicate your availability, there’s no guarantee you’ll get your requested hours. Even worse, taking extra time off to study for finals or an important test could be frowned upon.

This could force you to decide between earning the money you need to pay your bills and doing well academically. Unlike many off-campus jobs, work study employers are understanding of your situation, and they will work with you to come up with a schedule that allows you to put in the hours you need while still succeeding in school.

3. The work takes place during normal business hours during the semester.

Because work study aid is awarded on a semester-to-semester basis, you will not be asked to work during holidays or school breaks. So if you want to go home to visit family between semesters or take the summer off to participate in an internship, you will not need to make separate arrangements with your employer.

Additionally, because most FWS jobs take place on campus, it’s unlikely that you will be asked to work in the evenings or on the weekends. Instead, you can tell your employer when you are on campus and put in shifts before, between, or after classes.

This allows you to use your time efficiently by reducing the need to commute and taking advantage of times when you were on campus anyway.

The downsides to federal work study

Although the work study program has many advantages, there are a few things you need to know in order to make the most out of this program.

1. Funding is limited.

Institutions receiving FWS funds from the government receive a set amount that is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Once a college or university’s funds for a particular academic year have been allocated, no more is available until the next academic year.

It’s extremely important to fill out the FAFSA as soon as possible so that you are at the top of your school’s list to receive these funds. If you wait too long, the funding may be given to other interested students, and you may miss out on aid you might otherwise have been eligible for.

2. You won’t make enough to live off of.

If you’re hoping to completely offset your cost of living by participating in this program, think again. You will almost certainly not be offered more than 20 hours per week. And even with FICA taxes withheld, $7.25 an hour is probably not enough to live off of.

Is work study for you?

The program is not designed to fully cover your cost of living. Instead, the aim of FWS is to reduce your student loan burden so you can pay them off faster after graduation, and to provide professional experience in a job that is related to your major.

I know of several students who went on to work for the university as full-time staff members after graduating as a direct result of the time that they spent in the federal work-study program. While it may not be a full-time job while you’re still in school, it can lead to full-time work after graduation.

If you are interested in reducing your student loan burden after graduation, check the Federal Work Study box on the FAFSA. It pays — literally!

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