The Federal Work-Study Program
The Federal Work-Study (FWS) Program provides a way for students to earn money for their education by working at a part-time job while in a college or career school. There are about 3,400 schools participating in the program, which is managed by the Student Aid Office of the U.S. Education Department (ED). The amount of a student’s FWS award depends on the level of the family’s financial need, the amount of FWS funds allocated to the college, and when the student submitted the FAFSA.
Using the FAFSA to Apply for the FWS Program
FWS is limited to students with financial need as determined through the FAFSA process. Students interested in the program should submit a FAFSA just as they would for any other Federal student aid program. They can complete the FAFSA online at the FAFSA.gov or Studentaid.gov websites for the next academic year starting on October 1 st every year. However, 2023 is an exception. This year, the FAFSA for academic year 2024-25 will is not available until December 31 st due to delays at ED resulting from the roll out of the FAFSA Simplification Act of 2020.
There is an option on the FAFSA form that asks if the student would like to be considered for the FWS program. Those interested should check this option. Students should submit their FAFSA soon after its release because colleges have limited FWS funds and must decline students who apply after they are depleted.
In order to be eligible for FWS, a student’s Expected Family Contribution (EFC) on the FAFSA must be less than the Cost of Attendance at the college in which the student enrolls. Students are informed of an FWS award via their Offer Letters from colleges that have accepted them. Starting with the FAFSA to be released on October 1, 2024, the EFC will be replaced by the Student Aid Index (SAI), which will be a modified version of the EFC and will serve the same purpose.
Types of On-Campus and Off-Campus Jobs
Many jobs qualify for the FWS program, but they may vary significantly from one school to another. Jobs may be on-campus or off-campus. If a student obtains an on- campus job, they will be working for the college itself. Employment on campus can include such jobs as research assistant, groundskeeper, campus transportation driver, departmental administrative assistant, and library, food service, or student center employee. According to FWS rules, an effort must be made by the college to place students in jobs that enhance their exposure to their major field of study.
If a student works off-campus, the employer may be a public agency or a private nonprofit organization. If the latter, the work performed must be in the public interest. At least 7% of a college’s FWS jobs must provide off-campus assistance to the community. Examples are reading tutors for young children, literacy tutors for adults, and mathematics tutors at local public high schools.
Payments to Students
Students earn at least the Federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 per hour in 2023. They may earn more depending on the type of work, the skills required, and time in position. How a student is paid depends partly on whether they’re a graduate or undergraduate student. Below is a summary of the rules affecting pay and hours:
- Undergraduate students are paid hourly wages.
- Graduate students are paid either by hourly wages or salary,
depending on the type of work being done.
- The college must pay students at least monthly.
- The college must pay students personally. Some colleges permit
students to request that part or all of their pay be applied directly to
education-related expenses such as tuition and room & board.
- Total earnings cannot exceed a student’s total FWS award.
- When assigning work hours, employers must consider a student’s
class schedule and extracurricular activities to avoid conflicts.
- FWS jobs are part-time. Students may work up to a maximum of 8
hours per day and 20 hours per week while school is in session.
However, they may work up to 40 hours per week during fall and
spring breaks if they are behind on hours and their supervisor
approves their schedule.
- FWS income is taxable just like earnings on any job. Students are
required to submit an IRS Form W-4 Employee Withholding Allowance
Certificate when they start working. This determines how much
income tax is withheld from earnings.
Eligibility for the FWS Program
Although there are exceptions, foreign students do not qualify for the FWS Program. Students must be one of the following to receive Federal aid of any type:
- A U.S. citizen,
- A U.S. national, or
- A U.S. permanent resident with a “Green” card.
Regular Jobs vs. FWS Jobs
Work-study and part-time jobs share many similarities, but there are a few differences that students should understand.
Most FWS jobs are on-campus, although some students are approved to work off- campus jobs. Every job either benefits the school, the public, or both.
Regular non-FWS part-time jobs are positions that students find off-campus. Common part-time jobs for college students are in the hospitality, food and beverage, and retail sectors. Federal FWS income doesn’t count against financial aid eligibility, but income from a regular part-time job does. If they wish to remain in the FWS program, students should calculate whether the income from a part-time job will bring them above the aid eligibility threshold for the next academic year.
Shortcomings of the FWS Program
Below are drawbacks to the FWS programs that students should consider:
1. FWS pay does not cover large expenses: The FWS program is a good deal for students seeking financial aid because the funds are earned and don’t need to be repaid. But the money involved is seldom enough to cover all of such large expenses as tuition or room & board. Students can use work-study money to cover some college expenses, but many also require other sources, such as scholarships, grants, or loans, to pay the total Cost of Attendance at a college.
2. Limited job choices: An FWS award does not necessarily guarantee a job. Some students will need to find a vacancy in an FWS job, apply for it, and interview successfully before the job is theirs. Some colleges offer jobs to students with or without FWS awards, but they too require that students apply to and interview for jobs. Students should contact their college’s financial aid office regarding FWS requirements and procedures.
3. Must re-apply annually: Even if a student is successful in obtaining an FWS award, there’s no guarantee of an award again the next year. Changes in family financial status and the amount of Federal FWS funding that the college receives are factors that affect re-acceptance.
4. Maximum weekly hours: The student’s college sets a limit on the number of FWS hours that can be worked each week. This may reduce the student’s earnings potential while in school and prevent their attainment of financial goals. A regular off-campus job has no such constraints.
5. GPA Restrictions: A college may set their own restrictions pertaining to the GPA’s of students participating in the FWS program. If a student’s GPA dips below a certain point, the college may not allow that student to participate in the program until it rises to a satisfactory level again.