Federal Work Study Programs: Pros and Cons for Community College Students

Federal Work Study Programs: Pros and Cons for Community College Students
Learn about the benefits of a work study program for community college students.
Although community colleges are significantly more affordable than four-year institutions, the tuition, administration fees, living costs, and book expenses can add up quickly. Unfortunately, according to 2008 research conducted by the Project on Student Debt, one out of 10 community college students cannot access federal student loans. For these students, Pell Grants often become the primary source of education funding.
 
However, if your community college offers federal student loans – which the majority of large, public, non-rural campuses do – then you may want to consider federal work study (FWS) programs, which are also known as Formula Grants.  
 
Unlike other forms of financial aid that are strictly given as grants and loans, the work-study program helps fund your education through your working efforts. The federal government provides your community college with specific grants, and then your campus works with community and nonprofit organizations to create job opportunities for qualified students. You are paid an hourly wage for your work, which is typically higher than minimum wage. 
 
The advantages of work-study programs
 
Garnering real-life experience
 
Attending community college prepares you for the real world, and with a work-study program, you can take that preparation to the next level. Due to the supply of work-study jobs, you are essentially “guaranteed” a job, if you qualify for the FWS program. Due to the significant incentives employers have, you are more likely to be hired for your job of choice under the FWS program. 
 
Graduating from college with a degree is no longer sufficient for garnering an ideal job. As the economy becomes more competitive, it is important that your employment candidacy has an edge in the pool of job applicants.   Through the work-study program, you can garner real-life experience and build your resume, which will be beneficial throughout your professional career. It also demonstrates that you can an ability to effectively manage the responsibilities of working and attending school simultaneously. 
 
You will also develop a professional relationship with your FWS supervisor, meaning that you can add a work reference to your resume. This continues to enhance your ability to obtain the job of your choice upon your graduation from college. 
 
Greater work flexibility
 
With a FWS job, your employer will understand that you are a community college student, and therefore, will most likely be flexible in scheduling your work based upon your school schedule.   This may not be applicable to jobs that are outside of the FWS program, as employers have no incentive to hire a community college student in contrast to other job applicants. Therefore, they may be more stringent upon your working schedule, without significant consideration to your class schedule. 
 
Also keep in mind that unlike standard jobs, the income you earn from the FWS program is not counted against your eligibility for future financial aid. Although the earnings are taxed, you can still qualify for other forms of government financial aid. 
 
Giving back to your community
 
The beauty of a federal work-study program is that you can earn the funding for your education while giving back to the community through your campus or non-profit organizations. 
 
With financial aid funding, your community college will pay for most of your wages. This allows you to garner real-life experience, while the nonprofit organization benefits from only paying a fraction of what standard wages would cost. Therefore, whereas a nonprofit organization may not normally afford talented employees, they can under the work-study program – allowing you to contribute your skills to the cause that calls to you.
 
There are also many opportunities to directly give back to your community. Working with younger students in tutoring environments is a prevalent and popular FWS program, and this simultaneously helps you hone your knowledge base in your major or specialization. 
 
You can also choose from an abundance of positions on campus, which eliminates any time you would spend commuting. There are different positions and departments available, allowing you to tailor your work to your academic interests. 
 
No repayment of loan
 
Unlike financial aid in the form of loans, there is no money to repay with the FWS program. You do not have to incur interest on your educational loans, but instead, can pay for your education debt-free, or at least with lower levels of student debt.
 
The drawbacks of work-study programs
 
Restricted working hours
 
Since the program is designed for part-time work, you do have a Maximum Earnings Level, which is determined by your individual financial need. Therefore, once you reach your Maximum Earnings Level, you cannot continue working under the work-study program for that quarter, semester, or year. 
 
Whereas each community college campus has its own requirements, you can typically work up to a maximum of 20 hours per week when classes are in session and 40 hours during summer and school breaks.   Although the maximum is determined by personal financial need, most students on average work anywhere from 10 – 15 hours per week. 
 
Limited working schedules
 
If you do take a work-study position on campus, then you will most likely not have work during vacation breaks or the summer. Therefore, if you rely upon this income significantly, then the limited hours during these timeframes can be a detriment. It will be hard for you to earn extra money during your holiday breaks if you work on campus. However, you can always opt to choose an off-campus FWS position, which will most likely not share the same scheduling issues as an on-campus position. 
 
Non-competitive wages
 
Depending upon the specific position and organization, some FWS program positions may not offer wages that are competitive with the job market. Therefore, you may be earning less per hour with the FWS program than a traditional job. However, you must determine if the benefits – which primarily are that the FWS income does not count against your future financial awards – outweighs the lower wages. 
 
On the other hand, there are indeed positions that pay competitive wages comparable to the current job market environment. 
 
Do you qualify?
 
To qualify for a federal work-study program, you must submit your FAFSA and meet certain requirements, as designated by the government and your individual community college. 
 
According the US Department of Education, the value of your FWS award depends upon three factors:
 
       1.       Your application timing – Remember, with financial aid, the process is based upon a “first come, first serve” philosophy. The earlier you send in your FAFSA, the more money is available for awards. 
 
       2.       Your financial need – This determines what your maximum earning amount will be with the FWS program. 
 
       3.       Your school’s funding abilities – Each school is allocated a certain amount of funds for the FWS program. Based upon their funding allocations, your FWS award is impacted.  

If you are unable to maintain a satisfactory GPA, or if you obtain financial funding from other sources, your eligibility for the work-study program may be waived. 
 
Generally, a FWS program can be very advantageous in funding your community college tuition. With flexible employer schedules, income that does not count towards your future financial awards, and an ability to garner great real-life experience, the FWS program offers both academic and professional benefits. 

References:
Cochrane, Deborah. Shireman, Robert. “Denied: Community College Students Lack Access to Affordable Loans,” The Project on Student Debt, April 2008, available from http://projectonstudentdebt.org/pub_view.php?idx=329
 
U.S. Department of Education, “The Guide to Federal Student Aid, 2007 – 08,” available from http://studentaid.ed.gov/students/attachments/siteresources/FundingEduBeyondHighSchool_0708.pdf

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