College  |  September 18, 2023  |  Ashley Boucher

Understanding federal work-study eligibility and the application process

What you’ll learn
  • What federal work-study is
  • What makes you eligible for work-study
  • How to apply for a federal work-study program
  • How work-study financial aid operates
  • Tips for getting the most of the program

If you’re putting together a plan to pay for college, you’ve probably researched scholarships and grants, talked about the potential of federal or private student loans, and thought about finding a part-time job. But don’t overlook the possibility of work-study as a way to get more money.
 

What is federal work-study?

The federal work-study program can be a great resource for students looking to cover some college expenses. The program has specific advantages over other part-time jobs, too. For example, students can typically get a job on campus (the commute is great!), work schedules are flexible to fit around classes, jobs can often align with students’ specific interests and skills, and there’s an opportunity to network with faculty, staff, and other people outside of the classroom. Sounds great, right? But you don’t apply like you would for a normal job; you have to meet some requirements to be eligible for federal work-study.

Federal work-study eligibility

To meet federal work-study eligibility, you must be an undergraduate, graduate, or professional student who’s enrolled in school at least part-time. Work-study is actually financial aid from the government, like a grant. Eligibility for the program is based on your financial need. A number of factors are considered, including household income, the size of your family, and how many members of your family are enrolled in post-secondary education, among others. Not all schools participate in the program; check with your financial aid office to find out if they support it.

For a full description of the federal work-study program, check out this federal work study FAQ.

How do you apply for federal work-study?

The first work-study requirement: To be considered, you have to complete and submit the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®). This is the only way (I repeat, the only way) to be eligible for work-study. Some schools offer it on a first-come first-served basis, so file the FAFSA® as soon as possible.

Once you’ve filed the FAFSA® and you’ve been accepted to a college or university, you’ll receive a financial aid package. This typically outlines any financial aid you’re eligible for, including scholarships, grants, student loans…and work-study. If you decide you’d like to accept some or all of the aid, including work-study, you’ll notify the school of your decision and what portion you’ll be accepting.

Note: The U.S. Department of Education is making major changes to the FAFSA®, delaying the 2024-25 application open date from October 1 to December 2023 (actual date not yet announced). Free tools and resources to help you complete the FAFSA® are available at salliemae.com/FAFSA. You can also check studentaid.gov for updates on when the new FAFSA® application will go live.

How does work-study operate?

Unlike scholarships and grants, this form of financial aid isn’t actually given in one amount to students at the beginning of the semester. This is where the “work” in work-study comes in.

Once you start school, you should connect with your financial aid or college employment offices. They’ll probably have job banks or postings for you to look through. Typical work-study jobs range from working in the school’s library, to assisting professors with research or projects, to working in the dining hall. You may also find some off-campus opportunities through partnerships hosted by the school.

To maintain your federal work-study eligibility, make finding a job a top priority once you’re on campus. You’re not promised a job, and available slots can fill up quickly. Plus, some jobs are likely to be more popular than others. Don’t miss out on this opportunity for financial aid.

How much does work-study pay?

When you’re considering work-study, you’ll want to know how much it’ll pay. According to How America Pays for College, in the 2022-23 academic year, 20% of students took advantage of work study, earning an average of $1,821 each.

If you’re an undergraduate student, you’ll be paid by the hour. Graduate and professional students can be paid by the hour or by salary, depending on the work. You will earn at least the current federal minimum wage, but the number of hours you’re allowed to work, and the dollar amount you’ll bring in, will depend on what’s been outlined in your financial aid offer. Whatever was determined and listed in the offer letter (based on your financial need and when you applied) is what you’ll be allocated for wages for the year.

How do you get paid for work-study?

Work-study paychecks are distributed at least monthly, but sometimes more frequently, depending on the school’s process.
 

What do work-study funds cover?

How a student uses their work-study paychecks is up to them, but most use the money for daily living expenses and supplies like books, rather than tuition. Why? Because work-study funds come in the form of paychecks (distributed on a weekly, biweekly, or monthly basis as determined by your school) during the semester, while tuition is often due at the start of the semester.

Tips for getting the most out of federal work-study

  • Work-study is a valuable program if you qualify due to need—and it’s often an important piece of the paying-for-college puzzle.
  • If you’re thinking about applying for work-study, plan ahead: filing the FAFSA® close to the date it becomes available may help you get in line for this first-come, first-served form of financial aid.
  • Consider your work-study job a good way to make connections on campus while covering some of your daily living expenses.

Taking part in work-study can give you a good experience without jeopardizing your other on-campus priorities, like studying and going to class. If you’re eligible, take advantage of it!


footnote Sallie Mae does not provide, and these materials are not meant to convey, financial, tax, or legal advice. Consult your own financial advisor, tax advisor, or attorney about your specific circumstances.

footnote External links and third-party references are provided for informational purposes only. Sallie Mae cannot guarantee the accuracy of the information provided by any third parties and assumes no responsibility for any errors or omissions contained therein. Any copyrights, trademarks, and/or service marks used in these materials are the property of their respective owners.

footnote FAFSA® is a registered service mark of U.S. Department of Education, Federal Student Aid.