It's not uncommon to find a work-study assignment in your federal financial aid package, but it doesn't necessarily mean you'll be stuck in a position that is mundane or unrelated to your interests and goals. You may be able to score work in areas that interest you, such as in a community service-oriented position, or with a faculty member conducting research.
You may even find that work-study assignments, as well as other forms of college work, can have a positive impact on your study habits and overall performance — although working too much can also negatively affect your college experience. How you decide to approach work and how much you want to take on depends on you and an honest assessment of both your needs and limits.
Self-help federal student aid
Work-study is considered part of the "self-help" portion of your financial aid package (the other major component of self-help is loans). Non-self-help components of your aid package may include scholarships or grants, such as the federal Pell grant or FSEOG.
The Federal Work-Study program awards funds to colleges for distribution at the discretion of each individual institution. You may be awarded work in a nonprofit or public organization in the college community, or within your college in an area related to your field of study. You will be paid an hourly wage at least as high as the federal minimum wage.
Additional work opportunities
In addition to federal work-study, which could allow you to find interesting and relevant work with faculty, community service organizations, and other positions connected to your skills and course of study, you might also consider working outside of the work-study program. With the cost of a college education increasing, more full-time students are finding themselves working close to a full-time job or combination of jobs to make ends meet.
Research from the U.S. Department of Education and State PIRG's Higher Education Project has shown that nearly half of full-time college students are working 25 or more hours per week, and one-fifth are working 35 or more hours. This research also supports that working more than 25 hours per week is much more likely to have a negative effect on your college experience and grades, whereas working one to 15 hours may have fewer negative impacts.
Finding balance between federal work-study and college life
You can find a healthy balance between working and studying, but there seems to be an invisible line that gets crossed once you start working 20 or more hours per week. Like many students, your challenge may be finding a way to afford college without working excessive hours.
Some work is good, but too much could negatively affect your grades, your ability to take the courses you want and need to graduate, your overall engagement in your college experience — including extracurricular activities, service, leadership, and internships — and your social life. It's much more reasonable to try to work about 15 hours per week, with some or all of those hours consisting of a work-study award.
If you want to attend a college where you'll likely need to work more than half-time to afford your tuition, fees, room and board, then you might want to rethink your options. Perhaps a more affordable college, or one that offers you a better financial aid package with a smaller self-help component, would work better for you from an overall standpoint. You might even consider taking out additional loans while you're in school if it makes more sense than compromising your education. In the long run, if you have a reasonable amount of debt you will probably be able to pay it off when you get your first post-college job.
Summer earnings possibility
When you evaluate your financial aid package and consider the amount of work that is necessary and desirable for you, check for any "summer earnings requirement" that a college might add to your award package. You could expect to save $1,000 or more during the summer, before you even get to campus to start your work-study or other job. Ask yourself if that is a realistic and acceptable goal for you to reach.
Apply early for federal student aid
Apply for federal financial aid and work-study funds early in the process, as close to (but not earlier than) January 1 of your senior year as possible. When you get to campus (or even before), use the Internet and campus employment postings to find jobs that are more exciting and worthwhile to you. There's nothing wrong with serving food or checking out books, but you may prefer working one-on-one with a faculty member on a research project or teaching local school children.
Seek balance in federal student aid and college activities
As with anything, balance is the key, and you know yourself better than anyone. Managing a modest amount of work during college might be necessary, realistic, and even helpful; working a full-time job in addition to full-time study is more likely to become a serious impediment to your long-term college success.
By Howard and Matthew Greene, hosts of two PBS college planning programs and authors of the Greenes' Guides to Educational Planning series and other books.