Weighing the work-study option? It’s a great way to get money for school without any repayment worries. But if your schedule’s tight, it’s also one more obligation.
Here are nine things to consider:
1. The job should be about more than money. You probably elected to try work-study because of the financial benefits, but it’s a great opportunity to network, both for your campus life and career. “It’s to assist the student in not only getting the financial reward but an employment experience as well,” says Ronald W. Johnson, director of financial aid for UCLA and co-author of “Financial Aid for College: Understand and Plan Your Funding Options.”
It’s a good way to test-drive a career. “It can lead to a reinforcement of their career goals or help them to see different or new opportunities,” says Johnson, whose work-study influenced his career path.
“I worked as a peer counselor in the financial aid office,” he recalls. “Even though I was majoring in marketing, I decided this is the field I want to be in.” And armed with that experience, he was able to get his first job after college in the career of his choice.
2. It could affect your insurance. If a student “earns too much it could put them in a position where they would no longer be qualified on the parents’ health plan,” says Stuart Sorkin, partner in Offit Kurman, a Maryland-based law firm.
Since that benefit alone is worth hundreds per month, you want to investigate before you sign up for work-study or any other type of job. “Check with the agent writing the policy to make sure that’s not a problem,” he says.
And when you ask, be sure to total up all income you might have made in the calendar year, from summer jobs to the part-time work you did on winter break to the maximum you could get from work-study.
3. You will owe taxes. “I hear a lot of people say, ‘I don’t have to pay taxes; I’m a student,'” says Barry Picker, of New York-based Picker & Weinberg CPAs. “No, you pay taxes like everybody else.”
Before you start work, you have to fill out withholdings forms, just as with any job. This is something you want to look at carefully. Since you need the money now for living expenses, a refund at the end of the year isn’t going to be that useful. At the same time, you don’t want a bill at the end of the year, either.
So take the maximum amount of exemptions that you can. One thing to watch: Are your parents supporting you? If they are, whether or not they claim you on their taxes, you cannot claim yourself, says Picker.
But, he says, if your parents don’t claim you as an exemption, you can claim your education tax credits. Bottom line: Talk to your parents before you fill out your paperwork.
4. You don’t have to take the first work-study job you find. “The student usually has a degree of flexibility,” says Johnson.
Interview for several that seem to meet your needs, whether it’s a quiet place where you can get some studying done or something challenging in a career that sparks your interest.
5. Job opportunities will probably get better the longer you’ve been in college. “As a first-year student, you tend not to get the pick of the litter of the work-study jobs,” says Melanie Corrigan, associate director at the Center for Policy Analysis for the American Council on Education. “Generally, there is seniority in terms of how you get to pick your job,” she says. Possible factors: the number of years you’ve been in college, your area of study, the connections you’ve made, your experience and who might be willing to recommend you.
Johnson believes that seniority isn’t a factor as much as the greater flexibility older students may have in their schedules. “Many students who are upperclassmen probably have more time available,” he says, “whereas an incoming freshman is new to the university and trying to get his feet wet.” Many times, he says, “it really depends on what the department is looking for.” And if it’s a position that requires some experience, an upperclassman might have the advantage.
6. Putting in too much time can cause problems. “Probably the No. 1 thing” to remember is that the amount of work-study money you qualify for “is supposed to last the entire year,” says Kenneth Redd, director of research and policy analysis for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators. “You have to really budget the hours you’re working.”
With work-study, you’ll be qualified to earn up to a certain amount and no more. Depending on the hourly rate of the job, that means you’ll have a certain number of hours you can work.
“Students want to pace themselves,” says Johnson. Otherwise, you’ll be out of a job, and the employer will be out of luck.
7. It’s easier to get what you want if you know what you want. Are you getting a job in the library because you love books or because it will give you a quiet place to study and you need the money? Are you looking to make future professional contacts or investigate a career choice? It’s always easier to make a good match with a job once you decide what you want.
Do the hours you’re needed suit your schedule? Does it offer enough in money and hours to be worth your time, but not so much that it could impact your class and study schedule?
8. You need to understand what the employer wants. One key to success: “Communicating with the employees to know what the expectations are,” says Mark Oleson, assistant professor and director of the Financial Counseling Clinic at Iowa State University.
Get a clear understanding of what’s expected. What’s the dress code? What are the hours they prefer you work? What do they want you to do if those hours start edging upward? Is it OK to study on the job if you’ve completed your work, or is that best left for breaks?
9. It’s your choice. When it comes to financial aid, different solutions are going to work better for different people. Work-study can be a great tool, but you want to make sure it’s a good fit for you.
“My recommendation would be to talk to someone in a financial aid office who’s focused on work-study,” says Oleson. “Say: ‘Here’s what I’m needing.'” And be specific: money, job that gives you time to study, job that gives you a break from studies or maybe a job that gives you some insight into a possible career. Then, says Oleson, ask: “Is something like this smart for me?”
Dana Dratch is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.