You may not know much about work-study, but it’s one of the things you’ll be asked about when filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) before enrolling in college. The FAFSA doesn’t go into much detail about this option — it will simply prompt you to check a box if you’re interested.

So what is work-study? Is it a reliable way to defray the cost of tuition? How can someone be sure that it’s the most profitable option when there may be other, more traditional work opportunities near your campus? Here are the facts you need in order to decide if college work-study is the right choice for you.

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What Is Work-Study?

Work-study is a simple concept. The U.S. Department of Education describes it this way:

“Federal Work-Study provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need, allowing them to earn money to help pay education expenses. The program encourages community service work and work related to the student’s course of study.”

If the college or career school that you’ll be attending participates in the work-study program, it will work with the federal and often the state governments to secure funds to pay you for work you do through the college. Because it is considered a form of financial aid, it’s restricted to those who meet certain income guidelines.

The amount earned through work-study is limited and depends on what your school allows. Most students won’t be able to earn more than $1,500 to $4,000 a year. The money is usually paid directly to the college tuition office, or you’ll receive a paycheck or a direct deposit that you can use to cover any expenses you have in college, including tuition.

How to Get a Work-Study Job

If you checked the box on the FAFSA to indicate your interest, and if your school of choice is part of the program, you should receive a letter from the school letting you know of work-study opportunities.

Some colleges may send a list by way of email, or they may even post all the jobs on an online job board. Others may ask you about your skills and interests, then match you to a position that is a good fit and lines up with your academic track of choice.

Qualifying for work-study doesn’t mean you’ll have the skills to do every job, however. Since the college still has to make reasonable hiring decisions, it may request a job interview or job-skills test to see where to place you.

It’s also a smart idea to reply to any correspondence as soon as you get it; the most in-demand jobs are filled on a first come, first served basis. There are also opportunities to work for private companies and nonprofits outside of the college system. Care and service jobs, such as babysitting and housecleaning, come up in the college work-study system as well.

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Comparing Jobs

Work-study jobs usually pay minimum wage, so they may not be the best choice if you’re looking to make as much money as possible. The hours you can work are also limited. Because you can’t earn more than the maximum allotted on your financial aid award letter, you might work just three to five hours a week.

Compared with an off-campus job that has no work limit and the potential to earn much more than minimum wage, it may not make sense for you to pursue work-study alone — or at all if you have significant money needs.

The most significant perk of the program is that it’s incredibly flexible.

Work-study supervisors are often professors and school administrators. They know that school comes before work, and they are usually more willing than a traditional employer to accommodate requests and work with you on school-related schedule changes.

There’s also no beating the convenience of taking an on-campus job — especially if you live there — when you can pop into your position for an hour or two between labs with no worry of making a lengthy downtown commute.

Most students rarely have a solid eight-hour block of time to work anyway, and work-study can fill in those gaps with the chance to earn $8 to $10 an hour on average.

Do Your Research

Whether work-study is the right choice for you will depend on your school’s available jobs and your attitude toward getting them.

Some jobs, such as working the school gym check-in desk, are relatively simple and may allow you to get some studying done, especially in those odd hours when no one is using the gym. Other jobs will be just as busy and demanding as a traditional one, which might be a good thing if you crave interaction and want to gain some essential job skills.

Deciding what you want in a job before you apply will help you pick the right one. If you’re in your first year on campus, ask current students which jobs are the best. They are usually very open about it and can point you in the direction of ones that provide the most flexibility and opportunity.

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Choose Work-Study Wisely

Here are essential questions to ask a potential work-study employer:

  • Will this job accommodate extracurriculars — sports, theater productions, esports tournaments, etc. — in addition to my regular class schedule?
  • How much notice does my boss need to schedule for last-minute changes to my school or activities schedule?
  • How much time is spent actively engaging in work tasks? How demanding are those tasks?
  • If I finish the duties of the day or there is no one to assist at the time, am I allowed to study or do homework during my shift? If so, what are the policies regarding working while on the clock?
  • Will this job give me skills that complement my major or career path? Will it look good on a résumé for future opportunities?
  • Can this job be used to network with professors or other key people in college who may be beneficial to my academic career?

Additional Work-Study Facts

While there are regulations that govern the use of work-study funds on the institutional level, how colleges and qualified private employers decide to spend that money will vary.

Some may hire many students to fill the role of a full-time worker; others may have two students split a job. A simple mailroom position, for example, can have as many as six different students working its daytime shift at some point in the day.

What happens when you’ve earned the maximum amount of money allowed by your financial aid letter? It depends on your boss. A college employer may be keeping close track of the number of weeks you have left at school, comparing that with the money you can earn and adjusting your hours to make sure you don’t make more than you’re allowed.

Other employers — private ones, especially — may decide to keep you on for the same hours and just transition to paying you out of their pocket. This second instance is more likely if you’re working a job that closely aligns with your course of study and they find you to be an incredibly valuable worker.

Remember, even if you can’t find an appropriate work-study job, there are usually a few jobs on campus outside the program. Keep your eyes on student job boards and inquire with the departments that interest you the most. Many jobs get filled before they’re posted.