3 Annoying Truths I Wish Someone Had Told Me About Work-Study Jobs

Let me start with the understatement of the century: college is expensive. We all know this. We all hate it. The debt you take on to go to college will be the biggest influence on your financial adult life. Every effort to minimize that load upfront is worthwhile ten times over.

One of those efforts is nuzzled into your financial aid package: work-study. It seems simple — you get a job, and you use the earnings to pay for tuition. However, in my two years of work-study experience, there have been quite a few surprises that have popped up. Here are just a few things I wish someone had told me at the beginning. (Disclaimer: every college is different. Check with your financial aid/accounting office on the practices of your institution.)

1. That number on your financial aid package is an estimate

Now, this might seem obvious to some people, but to me, at age 18, it wasn’t. I looked at my financial aid package, saw the line that said Work-Study: $2,000, and I thought I would get $2,000 by the end of the year. I did not think about how this was an estimate. And for my first two semesters, it was a vastly high estimate. During my first semester, I earned $217.52. During my second, I earned $717.40. This left me with a grand total of $934.92 at the end of the year — a full $1,065.08 less than they estimated. Because of my family situation and their ability to contribute financially to my education, this gap in funds did not stop me from covering tuition. For others, though, it might have.

That $2,000 estimate was calculated based on several things (including, I’m sure, some things I’m not even aware of), but I know it didn’t taken into account 1) how long it takes to find a work-study job 2) time you need to take off for traveling home for breaks and such, and finally 3) the number of hours your job provides, which leads me to my second point…

2. One job might not cover it.

The barrier to getting a work-study job at my school is very low. It’s a small liberal arts college with less than 2,000 students. There are plenty of opportunities. However, the job that I ended up getting my first semester (student clerk at the mail center) had a lot of returning student workers, and only needed someone to cover a Wednesday shift from 1-3:30. Not a recipe for profits. My second semester, I got a second job working as a photographer for my college admissions department. This second job and the increased hours at my mail center one allowed me to get closer to that $2,000 in my financial aid package.

This is all to say that not all work-study jobs are created equal. There are jobs that are project-based, such as my photographer job, that don’t offer consistent hours, but offer a lot in bursts. There are jobs such as food service that do offer a lot of hours, but are not as glamorous. It all depends. When interviewing, I would suggest asking about the average amount of hours you’ll be able to get a week. This way, you’ll know what you’re getting yourself into, and whether you’ll earn what you need to for tuition in the time you have to earn it.

3. It’s built for people of privilege, not for a living.

Lastly, let me just say that these work-study jobs do not cover a means of living. They are meant for individuals who can pay for their food, gas, rent (if you have it), and other expenses without this money. Many times, the money goes directly to your tuition, and you never see it. Even if you do decide to have it go into your bank account, it is not enough to pay for much of anything.

Usually, as a full-time college student, you cannot work over 20 hours a week. There can be exceptions, but at my college, the supervisors are not allowed to schedule anyone for that amount of work. If you do it, it can result in penalties, including reductions in the student’s financial aid package. Also, nearly all of the jobs on campus are minimum wage, which for where I live in Wisconsin is $7.25/hour. This means the maximum you can earn is $145 / week. This is not good money.


These are all things I wish I had known going into work study. It’s not a perfect system. However, it is one that can be helpful in our effort to make college more affordable. So, keep these in mind when staring at the amount of money your college is saying you will earn.

Tess is a writer, photographer, and starting videographer. She’s from the suburbs of Minneapolis and currently attending Beloit College, studying Creative Writing. She’s a Hufflepuff, an avid YA reader, and a quoter of School of Rock.

Image via Unsplash

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