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 when he or she submitted the FAFSA, the level of the family’s financial need, and the school’s availability of FWS funding.
Applying for the FWS Program
FWS is limited to students with a 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 FAFSA.gov or Studentaid.gov for next academic year starting on October 1st
every year. However, 2023 is an exception. This year, the FAFSA for academic year 2024-25 will not be available until December 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 it becomes available because schools have limited FWS funds and must decline students who apply after funds 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 school in which the student ultimately enrolls. Starting with the FAFSA to be released in 2024, the EFC will be renamed the Student Aid Index (SAI). The amount of FWS aid that the student is eligible to receive depends on his or her financial need and on the total amount of Federal financial aid that the student receives through all Federal programs combined.
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 lands 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, administrative assistant in a departmental office, or library, food service, or student center employee. According to FWS rules, an effort must be made by the college to place the program’s 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.
How Students Are Paid
Students earn at least the Federal minimum wage. 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 an undergraduate or graduate student. Below is a summary of the rules affecting pay:
- 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 their pay be applied directly to education-related expenses such as tuition and room & board.
- 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 certain exceptions, foreign students do not qualify for the FWS Program. Students must be one of the following to receive Federal student aid of any type:
- A U.S. citizen,
- A U.S. national (includes natives of American Samoa or Swains Island), or
- A U.S. permanent resident with an I-151, I-551, or I-551C (Permanent Resident Card).
Differences between FWS and Regular Part-Time 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 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. Students should consider whether the money earned from a part-time job takes them over the threshold of financial aid eligibility for the next academic year. Federal FWS income doesn’t count against financial aid eligibility, but income from a regular part-time job does.
Drawbacks of the FWS Program
Below are drawbacks to the FWS programs that students should consider:
- 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 large expenses such as tuition or room & board. Students can use work-study money to cover some college expenses, but they will typically require other sources, such as scholarships, grants, or loans, to cover the total Cost of Attendance at their college.
- Limited job choices: At many participating colleges, an FWS award does not guarantee a job. Students need to find a vacancy in an FWS job, apply for it, and be interviewed successfully before the job is theirs. Some colleges match students with potential jobs but still require that they apply and interview for them. Students are advised to get in touch with their college’s financial aid office regarding FWS requirements and procedures.
- Must re-apply annually: Even if a student is successful in securing an FWS award, there’s no guarantee of acceptance into the program the next year. Changes in family financial status and the amount of Federal FWS funding the college receives are factors that could affect re-acceptance. Students must re-apply each year by submitting a FAFSA as early as possible.
- Maximum weekly hours: The student’s school sets a limit on the number of 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 part-time off-campus job may be a better choice.
- 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 designated point, the college may not allow that student to participate in the program until it rises above that point again.