Work-Study 101

How to earn money and work experience at the same time

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By: Erica Shafer
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We all know college is expensive. Direct costs like tuition, fees, meal plans, and room and board charges are hefty expenses that can add up quickly. Many students cover these costs with immediate sources of financial aid funding such as scholarships, grants, and/or loans. But how do you cover the not-so-obvious costs of attending school (otherwise known as the indirect costs)? Things like books, gas money, ink for your printer, and other emergency needs. Lots of students plan to cover those costs through scholarships and loan money, however, there is a third and sometimes better option called work-study.

Money for the study

Work-study is just what it sounds like, a program that employs those who are studying. It is both a federally and state funded program in which the government bankrolls the part-time employment of students while they are attending school. Keyword being part-time. Lots of students think that working while going to school is too much of a burden but that is exactly why the work-study program is so amazing. A work-study job is designed to be flexible. How much you will work depends on the job, your employer, your schedule, and your inclination to earn money.

Work-study students can work a plethora of jobs on campus; at a federal, state, or local public agency; at a nonprofit organization; or at a private organization. Your school will likely have a website or catalogue with the available work-study opportunities. Take a look at what’s available and keep in mind, most work-study jobs require you submit an application and go through the interview process, so brush up on those interview skills now.

The dollars and sense of it

What about the money, you say? The government gives 3,400 schools funding to pay their work-study students an hourly wage that cannot be below the current federal minimum wage. Typically, the hourly wage is paid directly to the student, unless otherwise specified. While you can use the money to pay your direct costs you may be better off using it for your indirect costs like food and other necessities.

If you’re worried about having to pay off a large balance with your school before you receive a registration hold, use loan and scholarship options. If you try to use your work-study job to cover direct costs, you will inevitably have less flexibility and more stress regarding your work study hours.

Need-based earning potential

Work-study is a need-based award so every student will not qualify. Your college is in charge of managing its own work-study “allowances” and will have their own policies on how and to whom they will award work-study. They will also decide how much they will award each student, an amount which cannot be exceeded no matter how much more you want to work.

Because work-study is a need-based award, interested students must complete and submit a FAFSA application. If you’re truly interested in a work-study opportunity then mark that down on your FAFSA and make sure to submit your FAFSA before your school’s priority deadline for financial aid has passed. The sooner you submit your FAFSA the better. Once all of a school’s work-study allowances have been awarded, there is little chance additional awards will be handed out later.

A full ride to college is rare opportunity that very few receive. So, if you end up relying on financial aid to pay for your degree, don’t forget to investigate a work-study opportunity. You’re bound to walk away with real-life work experience for your resume and stay fiscally afloat upon graduation.

Erica Shafer is the Associate Director of Financial Aid at Colorado College. She has worked in the field of financial aid for six years and enjoys it immensely. As once an undergraduate student who utilized financial aid herself and now both a graduate International MBA candidate and a financial aid adviser, Erica has been able to gain a vantage point of the financial aid arena which spans the outlooks of all parties involved in the financial aid process.
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