Working your way through college has taken on a whole new meaning in the last couple of decades. Ever since the U.S. government started the Federal Work-Study program, college students have been graduating with less debt and more job experience. You've probably heard your older siblings and friends talk about work-study. But what is it, exactly? Campus Life did a little homework and discovered some important stuff you need to know about this program.
Created by the federal government, work-study is meant to help with a college student's overall financial aid package. It's a great way to pay for college—or part of it—without taking on additional debt. Here's how it works. If a school accepts federal aid, a portion of this aid is used to pay students who qualify for the work-study program (to qualify you must complete your FAFSA—see page 10). That amount is then divided among work-study students, allowing them to work a certain number of hours per week to earn money for college expenses.
Participating in work-study is much like any other job—you work hard, receive a paycheck and pay taxes. The biggest difference between work-study and regular employment is that money received through work-study does not count as earned income when next year's financial aid package is determined. That's good, since any earned income can decrease a student's eligibility for aid based on financial need.
Most schools have a wide variety of work-study opportunities, from serving food in the dining hall to being a teacher's assistant for a certain class or professor. Some schools assign work-study students to certain jobs, while others let their students choose from a pool of "work-study only" positions.
Taylor University in Upland, Indiana, for in stance, tips the hat toward work-study participants by giving each qualifying student first dibs on employment. According to financial aid officer Shirley Fenlason, "If you don't have work-study, it's a bit harder to find a good job on campus."
Since work-study students receive a paycheck, they are responsible for how they spend their money. Many students apply the money to their tuition or use it to buy books and other materials. Some use it as their spending money. Still others simply save it for any unexpected expenses that might arise. Lois Hardy, financial aid director at Spring Arbor University in Spring Arbor, Michigan, says this can be difficult for students who aren't accustomed to financial freedom. "They are often over-awed by the decision-making power," she says. "If they aren't used to dealing with their own money, they may not understand how quickly money disappears and debt piles up." For that reason, discipline is important. Setting up a budget can be a key factor in making sure money isn't wasted.
Not all colleges and universities receive federal assistance. But if the college you've chosen does not offer a federal work-study program, that doesn't necessarily mean you're doomed to a large debt from loans. Bob Jones University in Greenville, South Carolina, for instance, receives no government funding. But they still provide on-campus job opportunities. The difference is the source of students' salaries. Rather than being provided by the government, money for on-campus jobs comes directly out of the school's budget. This doesn't mean, however, that schools like Bob Jones are necessarily limited in the number of on-campus jobs they provide. "We have approximately 2,000 students working through our student-work program," says Chris Baker, Financial Aid Director at Bob Jones. "I've only seen a couple of years when more students have applied than we've had jobs available."
Whether federally funded or not, on-campus jobs offer more than just financial benefits. The skills you develop and the relationships you build within your position can make on-campus jobs worthwhile, no matter how much money you make. Many students seek work on campus that's related to their major or allows them to make a difference in some way. This makes their work experience more than just a job; it can be a ministry or a way to learn skills related to their career goals.