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How Free Financial Aid Works


Work-study Programs
You can cut your college costs by grading papers and otherwise helping a professor as a teaching assistant.
You can cut your college costs by grading papers and otherwise helping a professor as a teaching assistant.
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Depending on your point of view, working for your college tuition may or may not qualify as "free" financial aid, but work-study programs play an undeniably important part of the financial aid system in the United States. In fact, more than 3,400 colleges and universities participate in the Federal Work-Study program [source: U.S. Department of Education]. Add in other types of work-related aid like graduate research assistantships and graduate teaching assistantships, and you can start to see how hitting the books and punching the clock go hand in hand.

The Federal Work-Study program (FWS) is designed to provide jobs to individuals who can't cover their tuition through scholarship money, grant money and savings alone. Like other forms of need-based aid, FWS candidates are determined based on Expected Family Contribution (EFC), with low EFC candidates receiving jobs first. Jobs are guaranteed to pay at least minimum wage, but participants can't work just anywhere. Only jobs related to the student's field of study, nonprofit work and campus-related jobs qualify for the program. In addition, all FWS jobs held at nonprofit organizations have to benefit the general populace, meaning FWS candidates probably won't get away with working for their favorite political group. Besides helping students pay their tuition, FWS helps students develop the tools to succeed in the workplace, building up students' skill sets, as well as their bank accounts. Students who don't immediately qualify for FWS but are interested in both the pay and experience that come from working should consider internships and co-op programs offered through their schools. Make sure also to apply for jobs around campus. You might be surprised how rewarding a job at the campus book store or recreation center can be.

Co-ops, internships and work-study programs aren't the only ways to work your way through school. Research assistantships (RAs) and teaching assistantships (TAs) are offered to students willing to commit several hours a week to research or teaching. In addition to receiving tuition waivers, research and tuition assistants can receive stipends to help cost-of-living expenses. These positions are merit-based, typically hinging on factors like undergraduate grade point average and scores on graduate placement exams. While such positions are typically limited to individuals pursuing master's degrees and Ph.D.s, undergraduate students can also apply for these positions in special cases. Like FWS programs, RA and TA positions aren't just about money; they give participants valuable experience that can help them further their careers in the future.

For more information about how to pay for school, keep reading.