For most UNC students, college is already more work than play. But over 5,000 of these students choose to take on a greater workload to fund college expenses through the federal work-study program.
For six to 10 hours every week, sophomore Liam Becker can be found selling tickets at the PlayMakers Repertory Company box office, for which he receives $9 an hour for his work-study position. He earned about $2,000 in total last year, which he said was essential for surviving the world of college.
“Generally that money just goes toward fueling my life — anything from food to gas to school supplies, anything really,” Becker said.
Nationally, about 700,000 college students participate in the program annually, including one out of every 10 full-time first-year undergraduates. About 80 percent of the jobs are on campus.
If students are deemed eligible for work-study by Free Application for Federal Student Aid, they can apply for a job through their institution. However, the amount of students who receive work-study depends on the economy and funding from the government.
Eric Johnson, the financial aid office’s spokesperson, said the federal and state government funding has declined significantly since The Great Recession. The government currently funds about 38 percent of UNC’s work-study program, while the University funds the rest.
Johnson said the University is planning on expanding efforts to raise private money for work-study opportunities since federal funding has decreased. The number of available UNC work-study jobs has increased, but not all eligible students can be offered positions due to reduced funding.
The wage earned by work-study participants depends on the job and its responsibilities, but must be at least minimum wage. The average hourly wage for UNC’s program is $10, and the average amount of time worked per week is 10 to 12 hours. A student cannot work more than 20 hours a week.
Students are offered a set award based on financial need, but with busy schedules and extracurriculars, participants are not always able to earn that amount.
Sophomore Claire Goray’s work-study award was $2,700 last year, but her busy school schedule prevented her from working enough to earn that total amount.
“Considering the jobs they offer, it is a lot of money to expect students to earn, and my heart breaks for the poor first-years because a lot of them don’t get a job their first semester, because it’s a lot to transition,” Goray said. “They’re just not going to get as much money, so they have to find their money elsewhere.”
Goray, a Carolina Covenant scholar, had to take out a loan to make up for the few hundred dollars she did not earn through work-study last year. This year, her award has increased, but she fears that she again cannot work enough hours to receive the full amount.
However, Becker and Goray said they were satisfied with the wage they earn for their job at PlayMakers, since it is not a demanding position.
“I definitely don’t think we’re getting paid any less than what we deserve,” Becker said.
While work-study allows students to pay off some expenses, such as groceries or textbooks, it does not allow them to save up for larger financial needs. Becker had to start a second job at a restaurant to save up for a study-abroad semester.
Despite work-study’s inability to pay for larger expenses, the jobs are very flexible for students.
“It would be during breaks in between classes, things like that. I could put in the hours I wanted to do,” said sophomore Henry McKeand, who worked at a lab in Greenlaw Hall.
Goray said her work-study job sometimes prevents her from going to office hours or extra credit opportunities, but overall it does not usually interfere with her academics and extracurriculars. Sometimes, when work is slow, she can do homework during her shifts, and the job has improved her time management skills.
“I feel like work-study does give you the benefit though of — because you already have a schedule in your week, you know how to manage your time better, because you’re not just given like five hours of free time a day,” Goray said.
A 2015 study by the Community College Research Center found work-study students were 3.2 percentage points more likely to find employment after graduation and 2.4 percentage points more likely to earn a bachelor’s degree after six years.
In UNC’s 2016 survey of work-study participants, 34 percent reported better grades and 58 percent reported better abilities to balance their life due to work-study participation.
“They’re more engaged in the campus community," Johnson said. "They’ve got more relationships on campus, they learn time management better and they graduate with a stronger resume.”
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