Work-Study Can Help Keep Cash in Your Pockets

Jobs range from dishwashing to manning the "4-Fact" hotline.

By + More

One reason why work-study jobs are a prudent pick is that the money you earn can't be deducted from a need-based scholarship. Ordinarily, under federal law, any student earnings totaling over $3,000 are deducted from your financial aid package—specifically, 50 cents of every dollar earned is added to the college's estimate of what your family can afford to pay. But with work-study jobs, your earnings do not affect your family's expected contribution. By this logic, you should take an off-campus job only if it pays significantly more than a work-study job. And with the economic downturn this year, off-campus positions will be harder to come by, to say nothing of the more remunerative ones.

Work-study jobs offer advantages beyond the fiscal realm as well: They are designed to meet student needs. A job at the gym may allow for a salaried workout, for instance. Or a late-night job at the reference desk might allow students to do homework on the clock, a perk that brings a whole new meaning to "learning on the job".

"It's a win-win," says Michelle Vettorel, director of financial aid at Washington and Jefferson College in Washington, Pa. "We get assistance and students get experience."

Craig Faish, a senior at Indiana University in Pennsylvania, would agree. Since last April, Faish, a criminology major, has worked as a dispatcher for campus police, collecting reports, running license plate numbers, responding to burglar alarms, and whatever else rings in. "I'm nosey and like to know what's going on," explains Faish. "This way I hear whatever comes across the radio, and I get to know all the officers as well." The worst part of the job, Faish says, is the hours. He often works late into the night and notes with chagrin the time he had to work through homecoming.

Work-study jobs usually pay close to minimum wage, which in Pennsylvania is $7.15 an hour. (While federal minimum wage is $5.85 hourly, local laws take precedence and the pay scale varies considerably by city and state, ranging from a low of $2.65 across Kansas, to a high of $10.50 in Santa Fe.) Campus jobs that require special knowledge, like tutoring for instance, often pay a little more. And undesirable jobs can bring in a premium. But that's not the case everywhere.

"I thought they would pay more for dishwashing," says Donovan Daniel, a junior at IUP, who spent a scant few hours wiping plates for minimum wage. "I quit the same day I started."

Now Daniel works for the Office of Housing and Residence Life, which he likes much better, he says, since it tests his skills, both administrative and personal. "People are always coming in with 'Oh my girlfriend broke up with me, or I got an F on this test, or I can't afford these sneakers,' " he says. Another IUP student working in information technology says he likes fixing computers on campus because he gets to know all the freshmen who invariably come in with computer grievances.

Others are more intent on greeting the glamorous. "I get to meet some of the important people," explains Billy Churma, of his job in the Office of Academic Affairs at W&J.

The University of Pittsburgh boasts one of the quirkier campus professions. Telefact is a schoolwide information hotline, operated entirely by students, for students. Students affectionately refer to it as "4-Fact" because that is all you have to dial from a campus phone (or 412-624-FACT from a cellphone). More than a dozen Pitt students man the phone lines, answering questions crucial and comic alike. And while pay starts at minimum wage, longevity is rewarded with 25-cent pay increases each semester.

"Students call up with things like 'I need to get to this place...' or 'How many blades of grass are on the cathedral lawn?' " says Timothy Dempsey, a junior at Pitt. No question is too silly, however, and Telefact's grass-blade tally came in at 4,165,032,960.

"As long as it's not personal or a homework problem, they'll answer the question," says Dempsey. "It's great! I don't know anyone here who doesn't use it."