Federal Work Study vs. Part Time Job

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Whether you want to cover costs or gain some experience, working during college is a popular choice that can make financial sense. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, ​40 percent​ of full-time and ​74 percent​ of part-time undergraduate students held jobs in 2020. Two popular options include participating in the Federal Work-Study program or seeking part-time jobs on your own. These options differ when it comes to the application processes, convenience, position options, schedule flexibility and potential compensation.

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Work Position Options

Federal Student Aid explains that Federal Work-Study is a need-basis program for students of all levels who qualify. It provides specific on-campus or off-campus job opportunities that ideally relate to your major and may serve the community. For example, you might work as a tutor or library assistant at your school or hold a position at a local nonprofit. These jobs are usually convenient and at or near your school.

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On the other hand, regular part-time jobs don't require financial need or limit you to the types of jobs you can work. You just need to be qualified for the position and able to meet the work requirements. There's flexibility since you find a major-related role at a local employer, hold a non-work-study position on your campus or even work remotely.

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Application Processes and Criteria

The U.S. Department of Education says that your completed Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) determines eligibility for Federal Work-Study but doesn't guarantee an eventual position. Your financial need also determines how much you can earn for the school year via the program. Unless your school matches students with jobs, you'll need to apply for Federal Work-Study positions and possibly do interviews. Each year, your eligibility gets reassessed based on financial need, plus falling below a half-time course load disqualifies you.

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Applying for a part-time position independently involves directly looking for job opportunities by searching online, networking with others or seeing positions advertised around town. This often means crafting a resume, applying for multiple positions, attending interviews and negotiating offers. However, you have much more control over your options versus with Federal Work-Study jobs. Plus, there are no concerns about being disqualified based on financial need or course load.

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These options differ for the application processes, convenience, position options, schedule flexibility and potential compensation.

Working Hours and Compensation

A Federal Work-Study position usually means a limit of ​10 to 25 hours​ weekly when school is in session and possibly a higher limit on breaks, mentions Ohio University. You get the benefit of a schedule that fits around your classes, and this can improve your work-life balance as a student. While total compensation will depend on the position and your financial need, these positions should at least pay the minimum wage. You're often paid every two weeks or monthly.

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In contrast, a regular part-time job won't restrict the hours worked, but you'll need to find an employer who works with your class schedule. You run the risk of needing to work during school hours or taking on overtime that causes conflicts with your studies. Therefore, Western Illinois University suggests regular on-campus jobs as a more convenient alternative.

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With a regular part-time job, your compensation will vary by position, employer and any experience or credentials you have. This means you could make much higher than the minimum wage if you qualify for such jobs. Pay frequency often varies from weekly to monthly.

Making Your Decision

You'll want to compare the pros and cons of Federal Work-Study positions versus regular part-time jobs to decide which option best fits your financial and work-life balance goals.

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Federal Work-Study Jobs

Financial need and minimum course load requirements

FAFSA needed to apply for jobs

Limited position options

Restrictions on work hours

Easy to work around your class schedule

Usually minimum wage compensation

Regular Part-Time Jobs

No financial need or course load requirement

No FAFSA needed to apply for jobs

Larger variety of job options

More flexibility for work hours

Can be harder to work around your class schedule

More varied and possibly higher compensation

While working 10 hours weekly through Federal Work-Study might suit you as a busy full-time student, you might find a regular job a better fit if you need more money or only take part-time courses. Having limited transportation might make on-campus Work-Study positions especially appealing, while wanting more job options can make you lean toward regular positions.

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Some students decide to combine these types of jobs such as working two jobs at once or turning to regular employment when Federal Work-Study funds run out. While combining jobs can make sense financially, you'll want to consider the effects on your studies and avoid working so much that your academics fall behind. Plus, Federal Student Aid explains that regular part-time job income – but not Federal Work-Study earnings – can affect your financial aid awards.

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