Working at college can help pay for school

Lisa Fan
Lisa Fan is a senior at East Ridge High School in Woodbury, Minn.
Working on campus gives you more flexibility than working off-campus, because on-campus employers tend to be more understanding about your class schedule and homework when assigning hours.

If you are a student looking for ways to fund your college education without taking out loans, a good financial aid option to consider is work-study. The work-study program provides jobs for undergraduate and graduate students who need help financing their college expenses.

Alissa Begin, human resources specialist at the University of Saint Thomas who works in student employment, explained how it works.

“Students fill out a FAFSA form, and the federal government determines whether or not the student has a financial need,” said Begin. “The FAFSA also tells them if they’re eligible for grants or loans, and a part of that could be work-study. Then they’re awarded a work-study award, and what that award entails is that they have to work in order to make money, and the federal government will give the university funds for the student to work at the university.”

There are two types of work-study, federal and non-federal. Federal work-study is based on financial need, while non-federal work-study is not.

What kinds of jobs are offered for federal work-study? According to the U.S. Department of Education, “If you work on campus, you’ll usually work for your school. If you work off campus, your employer will usually be a private nonprofit organization or a public agency, and the work performed must be in the public interest.”

Your school may have agreements with private employers for work-study jobs, but these jobs must be relevant to your course of study.

Also, federal work-study jobs are required to pay more than minimum wage. Undergraduate students are paid by the hour and graduate students are paid by the hour or by salary, depending on the job. As for the hours, the amount of money you earn cannot exceed your total work-study award, unless you request more funds or the college pays the additional money.

“Typically, students will get a $2,500 award,” said Begin. “What happens is that if they make that amount of money, the university will pick up the rest, so they don’t have to stop working when they finish those funds, unless they’re in one of those specific programs that is only funded by the federal government.”

If students use up their award, the financial aid office may be able to help. Some students receive work-study awards but don’t get jobs. “The federal government gives [the financial aid office] a big ‘blanket’ of the full amount and those unused funds could be given to the working student,” Begin said.

Your class schedule and academic progress are considered when assigning hours. The good thing about federal work study is that your earnings are excluded when determining your financial need.

If you do not qualify for federal work-study, you should check out non-federal work study opportunities at your college.

“At St. Thomas our students, regardless of whether or not they have been determined [by the government] to have a need for work study, pretty much all students, if they’re going to school full-time, can work on campus,” said Begin. “It’s the same positions. There are some positions that only federal work-study students are eligible for because they’re funded through the federal program, but the majority of positions are available to both FWS and non-FWS students.”

Working on campus gives you more flexibility than working off-campus, because on-campus employers tend to be more understanding about your class schedule and homework when assigning hours. Undergraduate students are not allowed to work more than 20 hours a week. Typically students will work 10 to 20 hours.

Non-FWS also encourages students to work in fields relevant to their college major. Work-study jobs can be found in dining services, campus library, major departments, and more.

There are all types of jobs available on a college campus.

“We have student assistants who do receptionist-type work in our offices,” said Begin. “We have students who work in food service, students who work in the maintenance department, students who are lab assistants, students who do website design…very wide range of positions.”

The amount of money you receive will depend on the type of job. Unlike federal work-study students, you are usually not given a specific award amount. Your earnings are considered taxable income and will be used to determine your financial need when filing the FAFSA.

You will likely have to look for and apply for specific jobs even if you have been given a need-based work-study award. At St. Thomas, you can apply online, and usually have to go through an interview process with the hiring department before getting hired.

“Students aren’t necessarily guaranteed a job, they have to look for a job,” said Begin. “We do have enough positions for students; if they look for a job, they should be able to find one. A lot of students think that just because they’ve been given a work-study award they just get the job and get the money. That’s not how it works.”

Do keep in mind that your academics come first and foremost, so make sure you will be able to handle a work-study job and schoolwork at the same time.

“If a student can take advantage of work-study, that’s great, but if they’re working on campus and aren’t able to maintain the 3.0 GPA that’s required for their scholarships, then that’s not really going to do them any good,” said James Hammar, a senior financial aid counselor at the University of Saint Thomas. “Most on-campus work-study jobs will allow the student to work as few as five hours a week, so it’s not really a huge time commitment, but certainly I would tell a student that if they weren’t sure if they could handle both a work-study job and their studies, they should certainly not work until they’re comfortable and focused on the schoolwork first.”

Besides the obvious benefit of helping fund your college education, work-study has other perks.

“It’s an educational opportunity for students to look for positions and apply,” said Begin. “A lot of students have never done that before, and they’re going to have to do that when they leave here, so it’s a great opportunity.”

“[Work-study jobs] are also a great way to build a professional network,” she added. “For example, here in Human Resources, we typically only hire students in our Human Resources program, so they get the opportunity to see how a Human Resources office works. We also give them opportunities to be interns after they’ve worked here for awhile, so they actually get that direct work experience. As professionals, we have a network of people outside of St. Thomas that we can connect them with when they go out into the real world.”