What exactly is federal work-study? That’s what Mieraf Teshome wondered when she saw her financial aid offer to Virginia Tech. On paper, the program was equivalent to $4,000 of aid per year, but Teshome had never even heard of it.

After a conversation with the Office of University Scholarships and Financial Aid, she signed up. Now, the junior in cybersecurity management and analytics in the Pamplin College of Business happily hypes the program’s financial and educational benefits. “Work-study is really helpful for students like me who want to focus on school but also hold a job,” said Teshome, a native of Alexandria, Virginia, who’s in her third year as a work-study student. "It’s such a hidden gem.”

Last year, 424 Hokies held federal work-study jobs — fewer than 10 percent of the 5,000 students who were offered the option. As the university launches the Virginia Tech Advantage to enrich the educational experience for students with financial need, some financial aid administrators worry that low-income students don’t know what they’re missing.

“Beyond just earning money, what matters is the experience and skill-building you gain from these positions while you’re in college,” said Nicci Ratcliff, senior assistant director of federal work-study and compliance.

Demystifying federal work-study

The Federal Work-Study Program was created by Congress in 1964 to help students earn money for college while gaining work experience. According to the National College Attainment Network, about 700,000 students nationwide are offered federal-work study each year based on eligibility and financial need. That's 10 percent of Pell Grant recipients.

Here’s how it works:

  • Work-study positions are essentially subsidized part-time jobs for university students.
  • The job isn’t automatic. Students who accept a work-study offer must apply for openings on Handshake.
  • Once they’re hired, students get paid biweekly like any other part-time worker and can use the money for any expenses they have.
  • Federal funding typically covers 75 to 80 percent of the wage, while the employer pays the remaining 20 to 25 percent.
  • Some positions, like K–12 public school tutors, are entirely funded by the government.

The benefits of work-study

The number of students who hold a job in college is on the decline. But Cody Smith, program coordinator for professional development and experiential initiatives in Career and Professional Development, points toward the growth and resume-building jobs provide. “I think that's the benefit that federal work-study can offer — to make students the best they can possibly be.”

Career and Professional Development staff can help match work-study students with positions that relate to their studies or career interests. They also offer an online career development course that puts the experience on a student’s transcript — a requirement for the Bridge Experience Program.

Another bonus: Because work-study positions are available only to students in the program, competition for desirable jobs is lower.

Federal work-study student Erika Schoff poses in the Christiansburg Middle School classroom where she tutored math students.
Some work-study positions, including those at public schools, are 100 percent subsidized by the federal government. Junior Erika Schoff, a business information technology and marketing management major, found that tutoring math students at Christiansburg Middle School built unexpected skills. Photo courtesy of Erika Schoff.

Exploring work-study opportunities

While 90 percent of work-study jobs were on campus in 2022–23, Virginia Tech recently participated in a pilot program with the Department of Education to add more off-campus employers to the mix.

  • Participants included public agencies, nonprofits, and for-profits such as Blacksburg Museum and Cultural Foundation, The Lyric Theater, Micah’s Backpack, Habitat for Humanity, IT services firm 1901 Group, and manufacturing company Spectrum Brands.

  • “Essentially, they took all the training wheels off of federal work-study, and they let us partner with private companies and help them create internships so students can use their financial aid to get relevant job experience, whether it’s on or off campus,” said Smith.

At her work-study job at Christiansburg Middle School, Erika Schoff, a junior in business information technology and marketing management, tutored math students and led classroom games. “It taught me customer service, leadership, and how to work under somebody,” she said. “The teacher was able to mentor me, which I haven’t gotten in other jobs.”

Meanwhile, Teshome spent the last year as a work-study intern at Card Isle, a Blacksburg-based greeting card company. Skills she’d picked up in the Pamplin College of Business — research, creating spreadsheets, tracking expenses in QuickBooks — fast-tracked her to a promotion. “I feel like what I’ve been learning in the classroom in my accounting classes, I’ve been able to apply here,” Teshome said.

The quest for access and affordability

Federal work-study is in keeping with the spirit of the Virginia Tech Advantage, a universitywide, multiyear commitment to offer a broad educational experience to undergraduate students from Virginia who have financial need. The initiative will provide new scholarship dollars to reduce unmet financial need and increase support for students’ basic needs, career preparation, and transformational learning experiences.

Both financial assistance and professional growth matter to participants. Regular paychecks, said Teshome, mean she doesn’t have to ask her parents for money day to day. And she’s thrilled that at her small company, she gets to interact regularly with the CEO and CFO. “I’ve met so many people and gained such a network through it. I think it’s opened up a lot of doors for me.”

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