There’s not a “one size fits all” approach to working your way through college. Who you work for, when you work, and how you work—your possibilities are virtually endless! And you don’t have to pick just one. You could sign up for work-study and then freelance on the side. Or you could take a part-time position on weekends and then intern during the summer.

As we explore the primary categories of job opportunities for college students, think through which ones might be best for you.

Work-Study

As we discussed in chapter 4, students demonstrating financial need are often offered a work-study option as part of their financial aid package. Work-study is a federal program that helps students earn money through part-time work at the school; at a federal, state, or local public agency; at a private non-profit; or at a for-profit organization. Students work during the school year, earning up to the fixed amount of money stated in their financial aid award letter, and are guaranteed to receive at least the current federal minimum wage.

Just because you are eligible for work-study, however, doesn’t mean you’re guaranteed a particular job. You will still need to find the right position and apply for it, just like any other job. Get in touch with your campus employment office to learn more about what’s available.

A key benefit of work-study is that the money doesn’t count against you on the FAFSA in following years. Which means that if you’re relying on financial aid in subsequent years, these earnings won’t decrease your eligibility like other income can. If you have the opportunity to participate in work-study, weigh it against other options. Also, don’t just take the first position you find. Do your homework so you can find the right spot for you.

Internships

An internship is a temporary position offered by a company or organization that gives a student real-world experience, knowledge, and skills relevant to a particular career field. Many of these opportunities don’t pay, and that’s okay because, in a sense, they tend to pay off down the road. Still, there are some really great ones that do offer students a stipend or wage. You shouldn’t make your decision based solely on money, but if you’ll be working anyway, getting paid while completing an internship is a pretty great way to go.

Interning while in college provides a host of benefits that can catapult you into your post-college career. So if you’re going to take one of these positions, which I highly recommend, leverage it for future success by being strategic about how and where you work. You want to stretch the value beyond a bullet point on your résumé and maximize the time invested.

Co-Ops

Cooperative education programs, or co-ops, are partnerships between schools and employers that allow students to receive paid career training within their field of study.  Co-ops make it possible for participants to work alongside professionals on real-world projects, make an income, and in some cases, earn credit.

Occasionally the terms co-op and internship are used interchangeably; however, a primary difference is that co-op students usually stop taking classes to work full-time, whereas an internship can be done part-time while still maintaining a normal class schedule. The most common co-op model alternates between a semester of classes and a semester of full-time work. Also, co-op students usually fill an actual role within the corporate structure, whereas internships are often add-on positions in a company. Consequently, your earning potential with a co-op is generally much higher.

A major benefit of co-ops is that the income you earn does not count against you on the FAFSA and is excluded in the calculation of your EFC. However, it may still affect state and school-based aid. Be sure to speak with your financial aid officer to verify how this option could affect your package.

In the world beyond campus, companies will often only consider applicants with at least a year’s worth of experience in the field—and sometimes they want even more than that—which can be a significant challenge for new graduates. Co-ops are a great way to build that experience. Because co-op students have worked full-time for several months, they generally graduate with more established professional relationships and project experience than their peers.

It’s important to note: not all universities or majors offer co-ops. If yours does, check to see what rules and financial implications apply. You may not have to pay standard tuition while completing a co-op, but some sort of smaller fee is possible. Do your research to explore if a co-op program is right for you.

Traditional Jobs

There are thousands of jobs beyond those tied to your financial aid package or school programs. Full- or part-time work is available pretty much anywhere! From waiting restaurant tables to working at a nursing home to retail positions at the mall, these jobs all have the potential to help you pay for your college education. And because they aren’t regulated by your school, your income and hours aren’t restricted. Plus, you are still earning experience that can help you in the job hunt after you graduate.

Take your time to find a job that is flexible (or that fits within your class schedule), pays well, and benefits your résumé in the future.

Freelancing

Building business as a freelancer is a great way for college students to make money while also maintaining a high level of flexibility. If you have a skill that will bring value to others, outsourcing platforms and smartphone apps have made it easier than ever to offer and get paid for your services.

Maybe you’ve got a knack for designing logos or websites . . . or perhaps you’d make a great personal assistant or proofreader. With the growth of websites like Upwork, TaskRabbit, and Freelancer, you can be up and running in a matter of minutes. Also, companies like Uber, Lyft, and Handy provide other flexible options for work. And that’s just scratching the surface!

Employment at a College

During a graduate school class, the instructor had us go around the room and introduce ourselves. I was surprised to learn that over half of my peers in that course worked for the university! I later learned that they were receiving an 80 percent discount on tuition in addition to their wages.

Many colleges and universities offer extensive discounts to their employees. Staff positions aren’t just limited to teaching; a multitude of jobs are needed to keep a campus running smoothly. While this may not be the most traditional route to a degree, the savings can be huge! Think about it: if you already plan on getting a degree and you were going to work somewhere anyway, then a salaried, staff position at your school is like getting a big bonus! As a result of your job, you not only receive a paycheck but a vastly reduced school bill.

This works especially well for graduate students, who typically already have a bachelor’s degree under their belt and are better qualified for university-based positions. The tuition break often extends to dependent students as well; therefore, parents employed at universities can be a source of major discounts!

Assistantships are also strong options for college-affiliated employment. They are designed to provide paid, part-time, academic-related work to graduate students. The benefits can vary between universities and programs, though they often include hourly pay, tuition discounts, or a combination of both.

Tuition Assistance Programs

Tuition assistance programs are employer-sponsored benefit programs that reimburse employees for education expenses. They can be particularly helpful for students who delayed starting college, have a family to support, or decide to pursue graduate school after entering the workplace. Being able to maintain a career and earn a living while receiving a significant discount toward a degree is a great option!

These programs are typically managed through a company’s human resources department. Internal Revenue Service regulations allow employers to provide up to $5,250 to employees each year tax-free, leading many employers to stay within that limit. Still, these programs can vary significantly depending on the company. Here are some of those ways:

  • GPA Requirements. Employees may need to maintain a minimum GPA to remain eligible for assistance.
  • Timing. Some programs will pay upfront for tuition while others reimburse the employee for tuition upon receipt of grades.
  • Post-Degree Commitment. Companies may require employees to continue working for them for a certain period of time after graduation.
  • Limitations. The program may only be offered to specified employees, or the areas of study may be restricted. For example, an employer might only pay toward tuition for middle management or above, or if the coursework directly relates to an individual’s job description.
  • Logistics. The process to secure funding with some companies may be more complicated than with others: employees may have to go through an interview or multilevel approval process first.
  • Completion Schedule. The length of time a company will continue paying toward an employee’s degree may be limited.

Next-Level Jobs

In our rapidly changing world, each new year brings more and more opportunities for students to earn career-advancing certification or an associate’s degree prior to finishing a four-year degree. No longer do high schools just offer shop class, for example. Today it’s possible to get trade-school certification along with your diploma! And I’ve already shared in chapter 3 about opportunities for pre-college credit.

Now let’s take this strategy a step farther. If you’ve completed specialized training early on, this can open wide the door for you to work smarter, not harder in college—securing higher-paying positions because of your greater experience.

Let’s say you’re studying medicine. If you have received EMT training, why not choose that kind of work versus a fast-food job while you earn your degree? The experience can be invaluable to your career—and to your bank account, as you’ll quickly notice the difference that even $5 more per hour makes. 

You’ve got this!

All this should encourage you that the college job of your dreams is within your reach. That’s why it’s worth a bit of extra energy in the search process: because there’s nothing like finding work that will truly make you happy and help you build career skills. Making money is, of course, important to your debt-free goals, but it’s a lot more fun when you can achieve your financial goals through fulfilling work. Be willing to do what it takes, give it your best effort, and keep your eyes on the prize: the freedom of a debt-free future is priceless.