Federal Work-Study Program
When you start looking at colleges and see their hefty price tags, the thought of somehow affording higher education seems daunting. Tuition can run up into the tens of thousands of dollars, to say nothing of room and board, meal plans, living expenses, transportation, medical, and a host of other charges that have to be taken into consideration when planning a college education. Fortunately, there are a number of ways to chip away at those tuition prices. You may already know about grants and scholarships, but there is another method. We have put together some information on what you need to know about the Federal Work-Study Program.
Basics of the Federal Work-Study Program
Provided by the Department of Education, the Federal Work-Study Program (FWS) is designed to help students earn financial aid via a part-time work program. Like any financial aid program offered by the government, a student needs to apply for it with the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), where the Expected Family Contribution (EFC) and demonstrable financial consideration are taken into account when deciding if the student is eligible for the Work-Study Program.
The program is weighted in favor of truly needy students; while all college-bound students are encouraged to apply, only those who have sufficiently low EFCs and provable need (as well as meet other criteria, like being enrolled full-time) will be selected.
Applying for the FWS program is easy. Simply filling out the FAFSA and indicating on the application that you are interested in receiving federal work-study funds will put you in contention for acceptance.
- How early you submit your FAFSA
- The information on your FAFSA that determines your level of need
- The funding level of your school
That last point comes from a school that is interested in hosting the Federal Work-Study Program submitting a Fiscal Operations Report and Application to Participate (FISAP) to the Department of Education. The Department then allocates funds, based on the previous funding amount of the school, and the aggregate level of need of eligible students in the previous academic year.
For this reason, despite there being 3,400 schools in the country that participate in the Federal Work-Study Program, some colleges and universities do not have the budget to offer the program to their students.
The first point on the list – how early you submit your FAFSA – becomes crucial because of the limited funds available for the Work-Study Program and the resulting competitiveness among students to apply for work. There are many advantages to filing the FAFSA early, and the federal government will look favorably upon students who demonstrate the urgency of their financial need by getting their applications in early. Students are awarded with FWS Program acceptance on a first-come, first-served basis.
The FWS is available to both undergraduates and graduates, but the type of degree you are pursuing – a bachelor’s or a master’s – determines the kind of work you can do. Undergraduates are paid by the hour, while graduate students either get hourly payments or a salary, depending on the work they do. Regardless of your degree, your school is required to pay you at least once a month. Most schools will pay you via paycheck, but you can request the school simply apply your earnings against your tuition bill, or simply send the money straight to your bank account.
Once you are approved for federal work-study, and you speak to your college’s financial aid office and program director to understand the terms and limits of the award, you will still have to actually apply to various positions, either on campus or off campus, to get a job and go through the resume-interview process in the same way you would do for a “regular” job. Some schools even offer job fairs to help their students get started. Getting FWS approval simply means that you are allowed to seek employment; it is not employment in and of itself.
The type of work available to you depends on your degree, your skill set, and the school at which you are enrolled. At Virginia Commonwealth University, for example, you can apply for office and clerical jobs, research and laboratory support, tutoring, security and lifeguarding, etc. The school’s off-campus FWS arrangements cover “[performing] direct service to our community and citizens in need,” which is the stipulation of all off-campus FWS work. This could entail working at a library, in social services or public safety, or other avenues that allow students to “make a positive difference in their community.”
If your employer is not satisfied with your job performance, you can be dismissed from the position. In many ways, jobs obtained via the Federal Work-Study Program are much like “real world” jobs – you will have a timesheet, duties, responsibilities, and a superior to whom you must be accountable.
If your performance at the job declines to the point where you are fired, the relevant school officials representing financial aid and/or the Work-Study program will meet with you to determine whether your termination is enough to warrant permanent expulsion from the FWS program, or if there are mitigating circumstances that would allow you to transfer to another program.
Citing a study released by the U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, a StudentAdvisor.com blog showed that full-time students who were approved for the Federal Work-Study Program earned an average of $2,200 in wages.
Work-Study, Taxes, and Financial Aid
Like with any other job, the wages you earn via the Federal Work-Study Program are taxable and must be declared as such. If you are using work-study for help pay for your tuition, you may be able to claim the Lifetime Learning or American Opportunity Tax Credits on that tuition. However, if you decline work-study and instead opt for financial aid in the form of grants and scholarships, then you will not be able to claim any tax credits.
Similarly, earnings from the FWS Program have to be reported on your FAFSA profile, but the FAFSA does not take those earnings into consideration when determining your financial need for the following academic year.
The Benefits of Federal Work-Study Over Other Jobs
In addition to the financial gains and appropriate work experience, many students choose to partake in the Federal Work-Study Program because it helps them build relationships with faculty and staff members in their various departments. This is a key benefit that the FWS program offers students that “regular” part-time work would not cover.
For reasons like this, the FWS Program is a popular choice among college students. At Cornell University, for example, nearly $3 million was earned by students as part of the school’s involvement in the program.
Also, since the federal government does not take your wages from the FWS Program into account when allocating your financial aid via the FAFSA, you actually save more on your tuition by using the FWS Program than you would if you sought employment outside of the program.
However, if you are concerned that your workload precludes working 20 hours a week, you can decline the option to enroll in the program (as simple as indicating your intention on the FAFSA), and instead choose to use the other federal loans offered by the government and determined by the level of need you specify on the FAFSA.
Using the Federal Work-Study Program to Pay for School
The Federal Work-Study Program is a great way to build up experience, make connections, and buff up your resume – all while you’re still in school. It gives you an immense head start over the thousands of other college students who don’t know about the program or its benefits, or who are just too unfocused to think about the bigger picture.
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