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The Benefits of College Work-Study
When most people think of "financial aid," what come to mind first are the potential for free money in the form of grants and scholarships and the prospect of taking out student loans. For many, especially new, students what gets overlooked too often are work-study programs.
Most work-study programs are funded by federal and state governments. In most cases they are as easy to apply for as grants or loans. Being a work-study student can significantly increase your selection of jobs and ease the job-search process. And in addition to getting you the money you need now, they can have a number of other benefits you might not expect.
Applying for College Work-Study Programs
When you fill out your FAFSA application, there is a question that asks if you are interested in student loans and work-study programs. Check yes, even if you are unsure if these programs will be right for you. You are not under any obligation at this point, and will still have opportunities to accept or decline any kind of aid you are ultimately offered.
Apply early! Because funding for work-study programs is limited, offers tend to be made on a first come first served basis. Also know that these programs are considered need-based. So the two main factors going in to whether or not you receive an offer of work-study funds after you submit your FAFSA are; your level of financial "need" as determined by the federal government, and the timing with which your application was submitted. The first of these you can't do much about, aside from making sure your FAFSA information is accurate. The second is in your hands, and could make the difference between obtaining a work-study position, or having to pay more loans back later.
Speak to the financial aid officers at your school. If you don't see a work-study offer on your first award letter, find out why and see if there is a waiting list you can be placed on. If you are offered work-study funds, get as many details about the program and how it works when, or before, you accept them.
Finding a Work-Study Job
After you've accepted your work-study award, you may find that the next step is a lot like any other job search. At most schools, you will have to select from a number of available positions, apply with applications and/or resumes, and go on interviews. As a student with a work-study award though, this process is made easier for you in a number of ways.
Not all on-campus jobs are work-study positions. But many are, and only students with work-study awards can apply for these. So a lot of opportunities will be open to you that wouldn't be otherwise. And you will be competing with a much smaller group of other applicants. You will have people to help you. Most universities have career counseling offices that can help you connect with those work-study positions. In many cases these offices coordinate with work-study directors in financial aid to make sure you have quick and easy access to postings and applications.
You also know that you are applying to employers who will be willing to work with your class schedule and school related events. This is one of the many benefits of having a work-study position. Part of what makes work-study a financial aid program is that the government grants money to the employers to help them hire students like you. That means that many of them would not be able to hire anyone otherwise, and are happy to take the time and scheduling needs of a full-time student into account as much as they are able.
Getting the Money to You
In most cases, you will receive your work-study funds the same way you would with any other job, through a regular paycheck. The work study "award" you are initially offered and accept represents the maximum amount of money you can earn at the job during the coming academic year. For most students this is between $1,000 and $2,000 per semester. That might not seem like much at first. When compared to other part time jobs available to college students however, the hourly pay rates for work-study jobs turn out to be highly competitive.
Also, one of the lesser known benefits of college work-study programs is that the money you receive is considered "financial aid" instead of "income" on your next year's FAFSA application. That means that the money you earn is not counted against you when you are considered for more need-based aid next year. A student who earned the same amount of money through a standard, off-campus job as you did through work-study will not qualify for as many dollars in grants, subsidized loans, and further work-study in the future.
The Hidden Benefits
There are also a number of other benefits to a work-study position. The first is something that we've already seen. It eases your job search. With all the responsibilities of life and school to be managed, finding a part time job turn out to take a lot more time and effort than it should. The resources available to work-study students make it much more likely that they will find jobs that work for them much more quickly.
Much is made about the experience and networking opportunities available to work-study students. But you can get that at any part time job, right? What really make work-study jobs more desirable are the opportunities you will find in addition to those of another job. The work experience you receive is likely to be of higher quality, since the people you are working for and with know that you are a student and are eager to help you learn. You are likely to find also that working in your work-study position enriches your college experience overall. Interacting with faculty, staff, and other students on a daily basis can connect you with campus life in new and exciting ways.
Once you've graduated, perspective employers may look more favorably upon your work experience and references. Being able to list a work-study position on your resume shows that you take both your education and employment seriously, that you are able to balance and manage the different aspects of your life, and that you are willing to make the most out of the opportunities you are given. Also, those employers know that a positive reference from someone you've worked for through a work-study position can be taken seriously. These are the kind of references that can go a lot further for you than those you may find elsewhere. It's always good to know people at your alma mater, whether you are applying for your first post-college job, networking with other alumni, or applying for grad school.
Considering all of these benefits, what would be the down side? Again, many students don't qualify for work-study participation because funding is need-based and limited.
Also, you may already have other prospects for work that will be beneficial to you in ways that you need. If this is the case, consider any work-study opportunities you may have as an option.
If you've been awarded work-study funding by your school and don't need it, talk to your financial aid advisor. You may be able to decline those funds so they will be there for students who do need them. Then you will free up room in your financial aid budget for additional funding from another source such as grants or loans.
Author: Kevin Hodges worked as a college financial aid counselor at a major university before moving on to a freelance writing career.