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What Is Work Study?
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Kayla Heisler
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Work study is a program funded by the federal and government that helps students who have financial need work part time to offset college costs such as tuition and housing charges. Work study jobs are performed both on and off college campuses, and schools pay students directly from the funds. All work study jobs are part time, and students of any level of study may be considered.

How does it work?

The federal government allocates a set amount of money for students pursuing their education at institutions who participate in the Federal Work-Study program. After receiving their funding, institutions distribute funding amongst select students based on their Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) application. Students who are awarded funds for work study must then apply for a work-study position to receive their funding.

There are positions available both on campus and off campus. Some students secure employment working for nonprofit organizations off campus while others may find on-campus work in administrative offices. Students are not allowed to exceed the cap of hours which is established based on the student’s level of study as well as their course load.

Though undergraduate, graduate and professional students may be awarded work study, the way that students are paid can vary depending on their level of study. Undergraduate students are paid by the hour while graduate and professional students have the ability to be paid in salary form. Students are paid directly unless they request to have the fund directly applied to their student accounts and used as a credit for tuition, housing, or student fees. 

Funding is allocated based on the level of financial need, and the amount of funds the school has available at the time of application, so students who know they will want to be considered should apply as soon as possible.

How do you know if you’re eligible?

In order to be eligible for federal work study, you first have to fill out the FAFSA form online to determine your eligibility. Because students are not automatically considered for work-study funds, those interested must confirm their interest by indicated that they would like to be considered when prompted in the FAFSA application. 

After the application is processed and reviewed by the school, the school sends a Financial Aid Award Letter that details what funding has been offered. If the student has been deemed eligible to qualify for work study, the letter will state the amount of maximum amount of money they have will receive if they are hired for a work study position. 

However, being awarded for work study for one year does not automatically guarantee that you will receive work study for all subsequent years. Students must fill out the FAFSA form each year and indicate that they would like to be considered for work study. 

What are the benefits?

Working a work-study job has several advantages over holding traditional employment while in school. One of the major benefits of holding a work-study job is that students have the ability to earn money while still putting their education first. Students who hold jobs off-campus that are not affiliated with their school may have to work for companies that do not allow students to take time off as needed. Because those with work-study jobs are seen as students first, their roles are typically less demanding and have more schedule flexibility than non-work study jobs.

Securing a work-study job also decreases the amount of money that students need to borrow. Because money is being earned, they do not have to take it out from another place that may charge high interest rates later. 

Having a work-study job can also be a great way to connect to your campus. Since students work with other students, they can form connections and also, depending on the nature of the work, stay informed about certain events happening on campus.

Another benefit is that students can gain experience that is related to their areas of study. For instance, a student interested in working in an area of mental health may find hold an administrative position in their school’s counseling center. This allows students to see a possible career path from the inside, form connections with those already working in the field, and give their resumes a boost.

Do you have to pay work study back?

One major benefit of work study is you don’t have to pay work-study funds back since they are awarded as pay, but you will have to pay taxes on what you earn. Unlike federal loans, money earned through work study does not have to be paid back to your school or to the government.

How to find work-study jobs

It is important to keep in mind that being deemed eligible for work-study funding does not automatically mean that a student automatically receives funds. Unlike scholarships, grants, and loans, the amount of funding indicated in the award letter may only be earned if the student is hired, so if they do not find a job.

Many schools have online job boards that list all open positions within the university. Students may visit these websites to search for positions that indicate being allocated for work study recipients. Searching the school’s online database is a great starting point. Informally, students who have been deemed eligible for work study may also visit offices on campus to see if there are any positions open. 

For instance, a student heavily involved with extracurricular activities may reach out to the Director of Student Life to see if any positions leading activities or assisting with administrative duties are available. 

Reaching out to administrators in various offices can also be helpful when searching for a work-study position. If your program has a career counselor, set up a meeting with them to discuss options for finding opportunities related to your area of study. Reaching out to a university career counselor may also be beneficial. Financial aid advisors may also be able to provide you with resources to help you find opportunities. Department heads of specific programs may let you know which faculty members are able to hire research assistants as a part of work study. Also, if there is a particular faculty member you would like to work for, you may reach out to them directly to see if they have any work-study positions available. 

You can also practice your networking skills and by asking fellow students what jobs they’ve secured and what they think of them. Asking other students can be a great way to gain insight on what positions are available. If you know someone who has work study is graduating, reaching out to them to see if they can connect you to a person in charge of hiring or for position-specific application tips may be helpful.

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Kayla Heisler is an essayist and Pushcart Prize-nominated poet. She is an MFA candidate at Columbia University, and her work appears in New York's Best Emerging Poets 2017 anthology. 

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