Federal Work-Study vs. Part-Time Jobs

If you’re like most college students, you’ll have to help pay for some or all of your college education. Few students have enough money tucked away to pay for school with their savings, so that means you’ll likely have to take on a job. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 43% of full-time students and 81% of part-time students were employed while in school.

While student loans can help you pay for school, taking advantage of federal work-study programs or getting a part-time job can help reduce how much you need to borrow. Federal work-study jobs are need-based and are part of your financial aid package, while part-time positions are available to anyone, regardless of your financial situation.

If you’re thinking of working while in school, here’s a breakdown of federal work-study vs. part-time jobs and how to choose which is best for you.

Federal Work-Study vs. Part-Time Work: What’s the Difference?

Both federal work-study and part-time jobs can be a great way to offset your education costs. With both a federal work-study and a part-time job, you’ll work and be paid hourly. But that’s where the similarities end. The biggest difference is that federal work-study jobs are offered by the federal government through the FAFSA, whereas part-time jobs are found outside your college or institution.

You can use your earnings from either to pay for a portion of your education expenses, reducing how much you need to borrow in student loans for your degree.

Federal Work-Study (FWS)

The Federal Work-Study program is offered by the U.S. Department of Education in collaboration with participating universities.

Available to both undergraduate and graduate students with financial need, it provides part-time employment to eligible students while they’re in school. Jobs can be either on-campus or off; if the job is off-campus, the employer is typically a non-profit organization or public agency.


  • Experience: Work done through federal work-study can be related to your major, so you’ll gain experience in your chosen field. That work experience may help you secure a job after graduation.
  • Earnings do not count on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA): Your federal work-study earnings are removed from your FAFSA calculation, so it won’t impact what financial aid you’re eligible to receive.
  • Pay: You’ll be paid at least the federal minimum wage, but depending on your field, you may earn more.


  • Limited funds: Funds for federal work-study are limited, so apply for aid early. Once the money runs out, the school can’t offer any more work-study positions.
  • Restricted hours: With a federal work-study job, the number of hours you can work is limited by your total award. Your employer and the financial aid office will consider your class schedule, academic progress, and financial need when determining your hours.
  • Work is not guaranteed: If you qualify for work-study, you’re not guaranteed a job. While some schools will match you to a position, others will require you to find and apply for jobs on your own.

Part-Time Jobs

Part-time jobs work very differently than federal work-study positions. With a part-time job, you job search entirely on your own. Anyone can get a job, regardless of their financial need, and it is not part of your financial aid package.

You can work on-campus or off. Many students opt to work off-campus, as there are more options and potentially higher-paying opportunities. Because you aren’t constrained by federal regulations, you can set your own schedule and work as many hours as you want on a part-time basis.


  • Potential for higher pay and more hours: Because you’re in charge of your own job search, you can be as selective as you want about positions. You can look for higher-paying jobs or look for part-time jobs that offer more hours per week to increase your earnings.
  • Greater range of positions: Federal work-study positions limit you to jobs related to your field and non-profit employers. With a regular part-time job, you can work for anyone, including restaurants and retail, so it may be easier to find a job.


  • Earnings count against FAFSA: Because your part-time job isn’t part of the federal work-study program, your earnings must be reported on the FAFSA as part of your income.
  • Work is not guaranteed: Like federal work-study, a part-time job isn’t guaranteed. Depending on where you live and go to school, competition for jobs can be stiff, and finding a job can be difficult.
  • May not be as flexible: Federal work-study jobs may be more understanding of your schoolwork, whereas your part-time job may not be as accommodating of your classwork or finals schedule.

How to Get a Work-Study Job & What to Expect

To be eligible for federal work-study, you must meet the following criteria:

  • You must be an undergraduate, graduate, or professional student with financial need
  • You’re a full-time or part-time student
  • Your school participates in the federal work-study program (if you’re not sure, contact your school’s financial aid office)

To qualify for federal work-study, you must fill out and submit the FAFSA each year. The FAFSA is what the federal government and schools use to determine what financial aid you’re eligible to receive.

You can submit the FAFSA starting on October 1 for the upcoming school year. The Office of Federal Student Aid recommends that you complete the FAFSA as soon as possible to get the maximum amount of financial aid. Some aid is awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, so the earlier you submit your application, the better.

You’ll have to complete the FAFSA each year to get financial aid, including federal work-study positions. Federal work-study jobs are not guaranteed, and you may not have the same position every year.

If you qualify for a work-study position, the school will give you information on your next steps. The financial aid office may give you a list of eligible employers that you can reach out to, or they match you to potential positions.

Should I Get a Part-Time Job While in School?

If you don’t qualify for a federal work-study position or if your school doesn’t participate in the program, picking up a part-time job on your own is a good alternative. You can find a job on your own and set your hours.

You can use your paycheck to cover some of your education expenses or to give yourself some extra spending money.

To find a part-time job, check out sites like SnagAJob, AppJobs, and Indeed to find work and side hustles in your area. Also, your school’s resource or career center is a great resource to use.

Working While in College

When it comes to work-study jobs vs. part-time jobs, there’s no one best solution for everyone. Both work-study roles and part-time jobs have their benefits and drawbacks. When evaluating your options, think about factors like pay, possible hours, how long it takes you to get to work, and how the work will prepare you for life after graduation. The right job can help you pay for college and help you launch your career after you graduate.

Looking for other ways to reduce your out-of-pocket college costs? Check out these 10 tips for saving money in college.


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