Work-study: What it is and how it works

There are many different ways to pay for college—and knowing your options can help reduce financial stress. For instance, it’s possible to work and earn money through the Federal Work-Study Program while you’re in school.

According to a study by Sallie Mae Bank, 20% of students use work-study funding to help pay for college. But what exactly is work-study, and who qualifies? Read on to find out.

Key takeaways

  • Work-study programs can be funded federally or by a university to help students with financial need pay for education-related expenses.
  • Full-time and part-time students at both the undergraduate and graduate level who complete the FAFSA® could be eligible for the Federal Work-Study Program.
  • Work-study jobs are available on and off campus, through private nonprofit and for-profit organizations and through federal, state and local public agencies.

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What is work-study?

Work-study is a school- or federally-funded program that provides part-time jobs to students who need financial help. Work-study jobs can be on or off campus and may relate to a student’s degree or benefit the community.

How does work-study work?

In a work-study position, eligible students are employed part time and earn at least minimum wage. Pay will vary based on certain factors, such as:

  • The specific position and the student’s skills
  • When the student applies
  • The student’s level of financial need
  • The school’s funding level

How students are paid may also depend on their level of education. Undergraduate students are typically paid hourly, while graduate students might be paid by the hour or by salary.

Students’ schools must pay them at least monthly for the work they’ve done. Typically, students are paid directly and can use the money to cover day-to-day expenses. In other circumstances, students might request that payments be applied toward certain education expenses like meal plans or housing.

Who is eligible for work-study?

To be eligible for a work-study program, students—both undergraduate and graduate—must meet the following qualifications:

  • Be enrolled in school on a full- or part-time basis.
  • Provide proof of financial need—usually by filing a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®).
  • Attend a university that participates in the Federal Work-Study Program or offers its own work-study program.

If you’re considering work-study, you could contact your school’s financial aid office to find out whether they participate and what requirements they may have.

How to apply for work-study

To apply for the Federal Work-Study Program, you can start by filling out the FAFSA. In the application, there’s an option to select whether you’re interested in work-study.

This application is used to determine your need for financial aid. When you receive your award letter, it will include how much funding you’re eligible to receive from work-study. You can choose whether to accept or decline.

If you’re granted work-study funding, it’s likely that you’ll still need to apply and interview for a job. Many financial aid offices will help you find open positions and guide you through the application process.

Is work-study worth it?

If you’re considering a work-study program, there are several pros and cons to know about. 


  • Your earnings don’t count against your financial aid. Income from your Federal Work-Study job is noted on your FAFSA and factored out of your overall income consideration. This can ensure you still secure the funding that you need to pay for college.
  • Work-study helps build important life skills. Work-study jobs can help teach you valuable life skills and may even provide you with an opportunity to network. If you secure a job placement related to your career field, it could help you get a job after graduation.
  • Work hours are scheduled around your courses. School-related commitments are typically accounted for when establishing your work schedule.


  • Jobs may be limited. Schools may have a limited number of work-study positions or amount of funding that they can offer to students. And work-study funds are usually offered on a first-come, first-served basis. You may be able to find positions available on campus or nearby that aren’t offered through work-study.
  • Funding isn’t guaranteed from year to year. You’ll need to submit a new FAFSA application each school year. And depending on things like your family’s income or how much funding your school can offer, it’s not guaranteed that you’ll receive work-study funding every year.
  • You may become overwhelmed with work and school. Working while being a full-time student can be stressful. It’s important to find a balance that works for you.

Work-study FAQs

Here are a few common questions about work-study.

What types of jobs are available?

Most work-study jobs are centered around community service or career-related experience. These jobs may be offered through your school, through private nonprofit and for-profit organizations and through federal, state and local public agencies.

Does work-study only offer on-campus jobs? 

Work-study jobs are offered both on campus and at participating organizations off campus. Off-campus jobs are usually meant to benefit the local community. For example, you could secure a position tutoring local elementary school students or assisting emergency response teams.

Is there a maximum number of hours I can work?

Yes, there is a maximum. Work hours can’t exceed your total work-study award. On average, you can expect to work between 10 and 20 hours per week.

Work-study in a nutshell

A work-study program can help pay for some of your education expenses and reduce student loan debt. If you’re filling out a FAFSA, it might be worth considering whether you want to participate in a work-study role.

Starting a job while in college might also be a good time to pick up healthy financial habits. You could even start building credit by getting pre-approved for a student credit card from Capital One.

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