Should I participate in a work-study program or get a part-time job?

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If you fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you may be eligible to participate in the Federal Work-Study program, a type of financial aid that provides part-time jobs for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need. Although Federal Work-Study is technically a type of financial aid, it may not register as such as participants are still responsible for finding their own job and must work for their paycheck, much like for a part-time job. This can lead to some confusion as to how to choose between the two. This article will explain the differences between a work-study program and a part-time job and compare their respective pros and cons.


What is Federal Work-Study?


Federal Work-Study is a program for undergraduate and graduate students with financial need that allows them to work to help pay for the costs of college. Work-study jobs are typically on campus—your employer being your school—and involves community service work or work related to your course of study. Participants earn at least the federal minimum wage, which is currently $7.25 per hour, but they may earn more depending on the skill set required for their job.


The most important thing to know about Federal Work-Study is that the amount you earn can’t exceed your total work-study award, which is determined by when you apply, your level of financial need, and your school’s funding level. According to the 2015-16 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study by the National Center for Education Statistics, 5.2 percent of undergraduate students received aid through work-study programs during the 2015-16 academic year, earning an average of $2,400. Work-study awards mostly went to full-time students at private non-profit institutions (only 2 percent of part-time students received work-study).


Work-study or part-time job? Weighing the pros and cons of each


One—and perhaps the only—disadvantage of participating in a Federal Work-Study program is that you can’t work as many hours as you want. Although a work-study award of $2,400 may be sufficient for some students, it’s less than what the average working college student earns during the school year. According to the Urban Institute, the median amount of earnings for dependent students who worked during the 2011-12 school year was $3,300. More recent figures give higher estimates. A 2019 publication by the National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2017, the majority of full-time undergraduate students who were employed worked 20 hours or more per week. Assuming that the average school year is 36 weeks long, working 20 hours a week at the federal minimum wage would lead to $5,220 in earnings, more than double what the average student earned through Federal Work-Study during the 2015-16 academic year. If you’re a part-time student, you’re most likely better off choosing a part-time job over a work-study program as the number of hours you want to work probably exceeds that allowed by your work-study award. According to the same 2019 publication, the majority of part-time students worked 35 hours or more in 2017, significantly higher than what they could have earned through Federal Work-Study.


If you’re a full-time student, the decision is less obvious. Having a limited amount of hours you can work isn’t a disadvantage for everyone as some students may not want to work too many hours during the school year, choosing to prioritize their studies or extracurricular activities instead. Federal Work-Study also offers several advantages, one being that work-study earnings are not counted as additional income on your FAFSA and, therefore, do not reduce your aid eligibility for the following year. Additionally, work-study programs may be less competitive than part-time jobs: work-study participants earn wages which are subsidized by the program, giving employers an incentive to hire them.


Work-study jobs also tend to be on campus (although not always), which are preferable for several reasons. First, employers tend to be more understanding of students’ schedules, giving them flexible work hours during midterms and finals or during breaks. Additionally, if you live on campus, your job will be situated nearby, saving you time and energy. Finally, work-study jobs are typically related to your course of study, which means that you can get involved in major- or career-related work, add to your resume, and earn a buck all at the same time. Keep in mind, however, that these advantages aren’t necessarily unique to work-study programs. For example, you don’t need to get a work-study job to get a job on campus as most schools offer a variety of on campus jobs for students with or without work-study.


To ensure that you make the best decision possible, when deciding between a work-study program or a part-time job, ask yourself the following questions: How many hours do I want to work during the school year? Do I want to work on campus or off campus? What type of job would best further my career goals? After reflecting on what you want, we recommend that you research both work-study programs and part-time jobs in your area so that you can compare and see which one best fits your schedule, skill set and career goals. For more information on working while in college, check out our recent blog on what jobs are available during college.

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