Work your way through college
Develop multitasking skills that are required in the professional world
The federal government subsidizes many part-time jobs on and around college campuses to provide students with stable opportunities for employment. When your school's financial aid counselor determines that you can bridge the gap between your savings and your expected cost of attending school with a work-study position, he or she can earmark funds for you.
At the start of each semester, the financial aid office will award you a fixed amount of money in the form of a work-study grant. Financial aid counselors try to calculate an award that will help you cover the cost of food, books, and entertainment during the semester. In only the most extreme circumstances will you be required to use work-study funds to pay for tuition.
However, many grants and scholarships are now contingent on completing a minimum number of work-study hours per semester. Many schools believe that working a part-time job while enrolled in a full-time degree program can prepare students for the multitasking required in the professional world. In order to earn money for college, you must be ready to show campus officials that you are willing to work hard to put money in your own pocket, too.
What do you get paid?
Work-study students earn an hourly rate similar to what a college or university would pay a regular part-time staff member in the same position. Because many work-study positions are unskilled, entry-level positions, most work-study students start out making minimum wage. As you build your professional skills, you can qualify for more rewarding positions on campus.
How many hours can you work?
You can work as many hours as possible until you expend your work-study grant for the semester. For example, if your financial aid counselor awards you a grant of $1,800, and your work-study job pays six dollars per hour, you can work up to three hundred hours during the course of the semester.
Many colleges and universities also place a cap on the number of hours you can work per week. Therefore, departmental supervisors will help you set a regular schedule at the start of each semester, so you can maximize your earning potential. As you gain skills and experience, you can land better paying jobs that allow you to access more of your work-study award more quickly.
What kinds of jobs can you get? Depending on your degree program, you can qualify for positions that can help you build valuable career experience. For example, many communications programs employ work-study students to help operate campus radio and television stations. Library science majors can earn their work-study awards with jobs checking out books.
Students with eclectic tastes can work in a variety of positions around campus. Federal administrators provide more funding to programs that facilitate public service. Therefore, expect to find many opportunities to work on community outreach programs, in museums, in tutoring programs, and with local civic groups.
Many colleges and universities use work-study programs to fill gaps in their own campus workforce. Students can often find work in a variety of positions assisting experienced college staff members. Work-study students can operate campus shuttle buses, prepare meals in dining halls, and help admissions counselors handle paperwork for incoming students.
Recent changes to federal funding guidelines for work-study programs have opened up even more opportunities for students who want to work in rewarding, challenging positions. Many schools can now place student workers in positions with outside agencies and organizations that provide a service to the community. AmeriCorps is the most prominent example of a work-study-based outreach program that pays students to spend time in underserved communities working on education and tutoring programs.
Other community organizations that now employ work-study students include writing programs, music appreciation programs, museums, art galleries, and public broadcasting stations.
Because some work-study jobs are more attractive than others, many colleges impose some restrictions on the kinds of jobs you can apply for during the course of your degree program. For instance, some schools require that work-study students spend at least one semester working in a dining hall. Other campuses insist that students work in a community outreach capacity for at least one semester. Check with your campus work-study administrator for specific guidelines that could influence your choice of on-campus job.
How do you apply for work-study?
Financial aid counselors assign work-study grants automatically as part of an overall aid package. They use the Free Application for Financial Student Aid that you submit with your application materials to determine your eligibility and your need for guaranteed work-study grants.
It's true that some jobs can be more fun than others. Therefore, competition can be fierce, especially for positions that provide significant career experience. Financial aid counselors recommend that you build a relationship with your work-study coordinator's office as soon as you receive notice of your first award. Many work-study positions are assigned on a first-come, first-served basis. Therefore, applying early can qualify you for more positions than you might find if you wait to apply until a few weeks into the semester.
At the end of each school year, students play a game of musical chairs with their work-study assignments. By March or April, many students identify the work-study positions that they want to fill during the following school year. By conducting job interviews with supervisors before leaving campus for the summer, savvy students can lock themselves into their most desirable work-study positions for future semesters.
Students that did not receive an assigned work-study grant can often apply for any work-study positions that remain unfilled after all grant recipients have had a chance to accept or decline their aid packages. In these cases, these assignments work like regular part-time jobs. Working on campus can be an attractive alternative to working at area malls or restaurants, especially during your first year of an undergraduate program.
As with any job, you can be fired or reassigned if you perform poorly. If you lose your work-study job during the semester and do not replace it with a new assignment, you will not be able to access the remainder of your work-study award. Because awards do not roll over from semester to semester, do your best in any position you take on so you can maximize your earnings. If you're unhappy with your job, work on finding a new one in your spare time, rather than simply quitting or failing to show up.
How do I get paid?
You earn a paycheck for hours worked on the job, just like any other hourly employee of your college or university. Most institutions offer many of the same perks for work-study students that they offer to regular staff members. You can choose to participate in direct deposit, campus credit unions, and even some insurance and discount programs.
Because work-study grants were specifically established to help students with the costs of living at college, you can spend your paycheck any way you please. Keep in mind, however, that you cannot receive advances against your work-study grant to pay campus debts.
You must also adhere to the limits of your grant. If you happen to work overtime hours at the beginning of a semester, the bonus pay you received could require you to cut your hours at the end of that semester. Most work-study supervisors will help you maintain an even schedule throughout the school year.
How do work-study jobs affect my studies?
Unlike jobs at fast food restaurants, or at the shopping mall, your employer -- in most cases, your own college or university -- understands that your class work must come first. When you learn to communicate effectively with your supervisor, you can often arrange for some flexibility around stressful periods like exams or presentations.
Overall, however, work-study jobs help you build a strong sense of discipline and commitment. During the course of your degree program, you will learn to budget your time more effectively. You also learn to focus more precisely on the task at hand, separating the responsibilities of your work-study job from the pressures of academic assignments.
Can work-study jobs boost my career?
By your sophomore or junior year, you should be able to build the personal connections on campus that can help you land a work-study position that is closely linked to your academic major. If you study business and finance, you can pick up valuable skills with a work-study job in your campus bursar's office or in a campus credit union. Marketing and public relations majors can put their classroom learning into action by working with campus media relations or fundraising officials.
Hiring officers love to see campus jobs listed on applicants' resumes. Taking on a work-study job not only builds key skills, it shows future employers that you can work hard and focus on multiple goals at the same time.
How can I learn more about work-study opportunities?
Every college and university maintains its own database of work-study opportunities. The financial aid counselor at your prospective school will be happy to review your situation and provide you with some ideas of potential work-study assignments. For more general information about work-study programs in the United States, download The Student Guide to Federal Student Aid, a free publication from the Department of Education.