How to Make the Most of Your Work-Study

Written by: Tony Lin

So, you got your financial aid package and it consisted of a few things: a student loan section, a scholarship or grant section, and probably around $3,000 in Work-Study.  Now the other two sections are pretty self-explanatory.  The student loan section is money that you’re borrowing that you’ll have to pay back eventually.  The scholarship and grants that you get is money you never have to pay back.  Now, what is that Work-Study section of your financial aid package?

Well, Federal Work-Study is a program that allows students to gain work experience in their field of study and get paid.  Although this may seem like a regular internship, there are a few wrinkles that certainly makes a difference.  First of all, the work-study position is either on campus or off campus at a public or non-profit institution that does work in the public interest.  Secondly, the work-study program means that the university, public institution, or non-profit organization can either get what they pay out in salary subsidized or increase the base salary for work-study participants.  This by itself is a massive advantage for work-study students trying to get positions as suddenly the organization that is hiring pay less than 50% out of pocket for a work-study student vs 100% out of pocket.

As a result, if two equally qualified students are up for a position, the one with a federal work-study grant is more likely to get the job due to the lack of resources that many Universities and non-profits face.  Furthermore, many campus positions are advertised with a clear preference for work-study students as it helps their budgets.  Furthermore, in some cases, federal work-study students can expect to earn more money from a campus position than they would otherwise.  For example, it is not uncommon for a research assistant position on campus to be advertise with two different hourly wages.  One is the standard rate for typical student (usually close to minimum wage).  The other rate is for work-study students and it is usually 50% greater than the other rate.

Beyond the subsidized wages associated with work-study positions, the third benefit to having a work-study grant is that it can change an unpaid research position to a minimum-wage position.  For example, if a student gets an unpaid position as a lab assistant to a professor in the natural sciences (biology, chemistry, physics, etc) and the position is unpaid, work-study can effectively subsidize the costs of paying the student to the point where giving him or her a minimum wage salary isn’t a problem for the department or particular professor to authorize.  This is certainly to the benefit of work-study students who are studying a major (biology, chemistry, psychology, etc) where they can get a lab assistant position to further their education.

However, the problem with work-study is that, although beneficial during the student’s freshman and sophomore years, eventually it becomes a benefit that goes to waste when the work-study student gets an internship at a private company during the school year.  Furthermore, the work-study grant is expected to help cover much of the personal expense of the student, including books and miscellaneous costs of attending college.  All together, the work-study grant becomes not very helpful in the latter part of many student’s educational career path, especially if they intend on taking on school-year internships.

All in all, work-study is a program that certainly offers many benefits to the student who receives it, provided they actually work enough hours to get all the money they could from the work-study program.  Just keep in mind that work-study is certainly to your benefit if you know how to work the system.


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How to Make the Most of Your Work-Study

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