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The 2024-25 FAFSA® (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) will be available in December 2023.

College can be expensive.

To pay for it, you might be using a combination of savings, scholarships, grants and student loans. You may also consider working to offset your college costs. If your award letter indicates you’re eligible for federal work-study — a need-based federal aid program that provides part-time jobs for students — you may be debating taking a work-study position or pursuing a traditional part-time job, like waiting tables, babysitting or working retail. As you weigh your employment options, consider these factors.


A work-study position is a form of financial aid that you apply for via the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA®), and the amount of money you can earn is usually capped and dependent on the school calendar. Work-study jobs guarantee a pay rate of at least the federal minimum wage — or the state minimum wage, if that’s higher. Depending on the position, pay from a work-study position may be at a lower hourly rate than a traditional job. Heather Funk Gotlib found this out when she took a work-study position as a student assistant at the Western Kentucky University library. “My job paid minimum wage,” Gotlib says, “and it made it hard for ends to meet. When school resumed after break, we’d often have a pay period skipped, a time during which I would rely on credit cards or my roommates’ food.” While not all traditional jobs will pay you more than a work-study position, some — such as a tutor, babysitter or shared ride driver — could yield a higher hourly rate than a work-study job. However, one advantage to work-study is that you are guaranteed a certain amount of hours, which could mean you end up making more money than with a traditional job even if the hourly rate is lower.


While it might not be a cash cow, an on-campus work-study job can offer other benefits — like an accessible location or time to focus on coursework. “I enjoyed the convenience of being on campus,” says Gotlib, “in addition to the time I had to complete schoolwork.” Gotlib was able to write full papers while at her work-study role and even had time to work on her passion project, her fashion blog. 

Not all work-study positions offer these benefits though. Perry Janes, a graduate from the University of Michigan, found it was difficult to balance his work responsibilities alongside academic ones while working as an administrative assistant at the university’s Sweetland Center for Writing.  

Janes explains, “As a sophomore, I found myself struggling with increasingly rigorous academic demands, and I became less efficient in my job as a result.”

Your Future Career

A work-study position may offer an added advantage of aligning with your major or career goals. Brit McGinnis had a work-study role as a content intern for a media company while she was a student at the University of Oregon. “I do very similar work now to what I did at the agency, so it was a very informative experience,” she says. 

Even if it isn’t directly correlated to your area of interest, a work-study job can help boost your chances of standing out on your job applications once you graduate. Gotlib worked in a field unrelated to her work-study position, but “I was able to use my [work-study] boss as a reference, and the job helped bulk up what would otherwise have been a very sparse résumé,” she says. 

Of course, a traditional part-time job can similarly build your résumé and expose you to future references. However, work-study roles are generally steady positions that are created for students to maintain throughout their time in college. They may provide a more reliable opportunity for students to build relationships and experience than traditional part-time work. 

That being said, work-study job opportunities are limited. Even if your award letter includes a work-study offer, you aren’t guaranteed a position that fits with your schedule or interests. In fact, the offer of work-study doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a job at all. Both work-study and traditional jobs can be competitive, and you have to do the leg work to find a position. 

Making the choice between a work-study job and a traditional job is a personal decision. An ideal role for one student might not be great for another. When it comes to making extra money, think about which way makes the most sense for you. 

Interviews for this article were conducted in 2018. 

FAFSA® is a registered trademark of the US Department of Education and is not affiliated with Discover® Student Loans.

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