How Work-Study Programs Work

About the Federal Work-Study Program

A lab assistant is one of the many jobs students can get through a work-study program.
A lab assistant is one of the many jobs students can get through a work-study program.
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The Federal Work-Study Program (FWS), formerly known as the College Work-Study Program, was first established as part of the Higher Education Act of 1965. It provides funding to pay full-time college students who meet financial eligibility requirements for part-time employment. The money they earn is then used to finance their college educations. More than 3,400 institutions of higher learning participate in the Federal Work-Study Program, and about 7 percent of all undergraduates participate in a Work-Study Program, receiving an average of $2,400 each year [source: U.S. Department of Education].

Congress allocates money for the Federal Work Study Program. In 2009, more than $980 million was allocated as regular funding, then $200 million was added to the Federal Work-Study Program as part of the Recovery Act. In total, more than $1.4 billion is available through the Federal Work-Study Program when institutional or state matching dollars, plus private or federal loan capital, is added [source: U.S. Department of Education]. Money is allocated to each school depending on the number of students demonstrating a need, and the financial aid departments at individual institutions have a great deal of freedom in deciding how to distribute this money to the students.

All sorts of jobs are available to students who qualify for the Federal Work-Study Program. Most of these positions are on campus at the school and include positions such as lab assistant, clerical help and cafeteria worker. These jobs don't have to be related to the student's major. Other jobs are community service positions that are off-campus. The government requires that community service jobs be a part of the Federal Work-Study program. Some schools have agreements with outside for-profit companies for work-study jobs -- these jobs must be relevant to the student's course of study.

The money is allotted for each student, and then the student must work in a job in order to receive it. Most jobs pay federal minimum wage, and the school issues the paychecks. Students are paid by the hour. The checks may be deposited in the student's bank account, or the student may opt to have any earnings directly applied to school costs. Students' earnings cannot exceed their total Federal Work-Study award.

Qualifying for the Federal Work-Study Program is based on financial need as determined by government standards. In the next section, we'll look at what it takes to earn the opportunity to participate in a work-study program.