What Does Work-Study Look Like in the US?

young woman studying in her living room,sitting on the carpet.
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You’ll hear college graduates talk about having worked their way through school. They may or may not be talking about work-study, a need-based form of financial aid that students earn through part-time employment. If you’re currently trying to cobble together the funds to make higher education a reality, you’ve certainly looked into gift aid like scholarships and grants. You should also consider subsidizing your schooling while earning real-world experience through a work-study program.  

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Work-Study Is More Than a Job — It’s Financial Aid

Plenty of students make extra money with part-time jobs while they’re in college — but not all of them do so through work-study programs. 

“Work-study jobs are awarded based on financial need,” said Mark Kantrowitz, a financial aid expert and author of the bestselling book “How to Appeal for More College Financial Aid.” “Students who don’t have financial need should search for other part-time jobs on or off campus.”

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As Kantrowitz points out, financial aid packages typically include a combination of gift aid — grants and scholarships — student loans and student employment, like work-study jobs.

“There are two main types of work-study,” Kantrowitz said. “Federal work-study and college work-study. Federal work-study is funded through a combination of federal and college funds. College work-study is funded entirely by the college. Federal work-study jobs must pay at least the federal minimum wage (currently $7.25 per hour), but the pay is much better at some colleges. A typical federal work-study job will be about 10-20 hours per week.” 

Since work-study is a form of financial aid, students must apply for it in much the same way. 

“The federal work-study program is funded by federally subsidized funds,” said Annette Mucci, a financial aid counselor and manager of the work-study program at Fisher College in Boston. “In order for students to participate in this program, they must submit a Free Application of Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) to the Office of Financial Aid in accordance with published deadlines.”

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Work-Study Delivers Sorely Needed Cash, and Much More

The most obvious benefit of work-study is money — something just about every college student is strapped for, work-study or no work-study. 

“The money is intended to help the student pay for college costs,” Kantrowitz said. “But many students use it as walking-around money, to pay for eating out and entertainment, not just tuition and fees.”

The benefits, however, go far beyond spending cash.

“Work-study marries federal financial assistance for need-eligible students with on-the-job training at the university,” said Dr. Jill Hernandez, dean of the College of Arts & Humanities at Central Washington University. “Not only do our work-study students receive valuable vocational clarity — a must for arts and humanities students — they also deepen their ties to the college’s faculty, staff and students, which leads to significantly higher retention and graduation rates for our work-study students compared to those who work outside of the university. It makes sense — students stay and graduate when they have money to complete, when they feel connected outside of the classroom, and when they have a network of advocates helping advise them.”

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Work Can Make You a Better Student Now and a Better Employee Later

Many work-study participants and advisors find that students who forgo work to concentrate on school might not be doing themselves any favors. 

“The advantages of employing a student on campus are numerous,” Mucci said. “It enriches the college experience for the student and serves as a means of defraying educational expenses.”

Working while studying can make you a better student while you’re in school and make you a more attractive candidate to employers when you graduate. 

“Education combined with work-study is the key to employability,” Mucci said. “Students may have the opportunity to be employed in their field and can work on their job skills, which is an important first step toward entering the job market. Students who are employed have the opportunity to test their academic lessons and develop better time-management skills and often make the adjustment to campus life better because they are immediately incorporated into the campus community.”

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So, Who Decides Who Gets What Job?

Work-study programs are designed to match students with jobs that make sense for them, their goals and their courses of study.

“Students are not placed in a work-study position,” said Mucci. “Instead, they are given the opportunity to apply for a work-study position that interests them and that they feel is a good fit to improve their job skills for their future field of employment.”

The early bird, however, tends to get the worm.

“Typically, more students will receive work-study jobs in their financial aid packages than there are jobs available because some students will decide that they don’t want the job,” said Kantrowitz. “But sometimes there is too much demand for jobs, so students should seek a job as soon as possible. Jobs are typically provided on a first-come, first-serve basis until no more jobs are available.” 

In the best scenarios, the college is the student’s partner and guide throughout the process.

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“We typically have employment opportunities within our academic departments as well as the college, in addition to a range of jobs within most units on campus,” Hernandez said. “Students hear about jobs on campus through career services, advising, college and departmental communications and faculty. They apply for those jobs just like they would outside of the university, and are mentored through their interview processes. Our college walks successful hires through what led them to land the job, as well as to discuss with students we didn’t hire how they can improve for next quarter’s employment opportunities.”

As it is, work-study requires a healthy life balance in order to succeed.

“Students should beware of working too many hours,” said Kantrowitz. “Students who work a full-time job are half as likely to graduate with a bachelor’s degree within six years as compared with students who work 12 hours or less a week. Every hour beyond 12 hours a week takes too much time away from academics.”

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Last updated: Aug. 13, 2021

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About the Author

Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street's investment community in New York City.
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