TANF and WorkFirst for College Students

If you get a TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families) grant, you probably have to take part in WorkFirst if you want to go to college and keep getting TANF. #7138EN

Please Note:


  • If you get public benefits like SSI, food stamps, or TANF, and you have gotten legal financial obligations (LFOs) refunded by the Court, you may need to follow “spend down requirements” to keep getting benefits. You should tell DSHS about this refund as soon as possible. If you have questions, call CLEAR at 1-888-201-1014 or see contact info below.  

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)

Yes, if you get TANF and want to go to college. You probably have to do WorkFirst to keep getting TANF.

DSHS could excuse you temporarily from doing WorkFirst. 

If they do not, you must take part in a WorkFirst activity for up to 30 hours a week.  Your first WorkFirst activity will probably be 12 weeks of job search.

Yes. If you are already working 20 hours or have at least 16 hours of work-study a week, DSHS will let you get TANF and a higher education without having your benefits reduced (without sanction).

This schedule may be hard. There may be more work requirements later. However, you can finish your education without full support from TANF.
We also explain some other options here.  It might help you figure out a good plan for yourself.

  • WorkFirst rules for 2-parent families are different.  
  • You should discuss any educational plan with your case manager and/or call CLEAR. See contact information below.

Maybe. WorkFirst’s options include some activities along these lines.  They are called “stand-alone” activities. This generally is for 1-year information technology, health care or other professional-technical programs at state community or technical colleges, or some 4-year programs in these fields.

Community colleges have programs to get you ready for these jobs.  They are more likely to lead to a good job that will let you support your family.  Talk to the WorkFirst case manager at your local community college. 

You must choose a course of study that gives you marketable job skills.  A 1-year program in computer information might be better than a 4-year degree in psychology. You would have up to 4 years to look for a job and still get benefits. If you got a psychology degree, you would have just a year’s worth of benefits left.

DSHS wants to make sure you are in the best activities to meet your needs and help you move forward. You may disagree with DSHS and your case manager about the best plan for your success.

You can choose not to take part in WorkFirst. If you do, you would keep going to school while getting less TANF.  

If you do not have a good reason not to do WorkFirst, DSHS will reduce how much you get in benefits (will sanction you) for not cooperating.


A sanction means both:

  • 40% less of your TANF or 1 person’s share, whichever is more
  • Less food stamps

Read WorkFirst Sanctions to learn more.

Before sanctioning you, DSHS will ask you to a case staffing meeting. This is your chance to explain your good reason. You have 10 days to respond to DSHS to explain your situation.  

DSHS must send you a notice telling you when the case staffing is.  You can bring people to help support you.  If you do not go, DSHS will make a decision without your input.

The 60-month time limit to get TANF is still running. If you are in sanction more than 2 months in a row, DSHS will close your case.

You can try. DSHS rules make it hard.  You must follow your IRP for four full weeks in a row. DSHS will remove the sanction the next month.  

It depends.  You must figure out how to have enough income to meet your basic needs and childcare.  You might replace what you lose from your TANF with school financial aid.  Talk to a financial aid officer at your school.  

You could also work enough hours to make up the TANF you lose from the sanction.  You would have to work between 8 and 12 hours a week at minimum wage to make up the 40% loss of your grant.  DSHS only “counts” half of your gross take-home pay.  It lowers your TANF by the other half.  Work-Study earnings do not count as income or affect your TANF amount.

You may also get your sanction lifted temporarily if you work during the summer.

Yes. 16 or more hours of work-study will meet the Work First participation requirement.  Your IRP should also include community college or other technical or vocational training.

You still must work 20 hours a week.  Your IRP should list your school hours as “VU” (Vocational Unapproved).

To meet WorkFirst in a 4-year degree program, you could combine work-study with other paid work to equal 20 hours a week.  

  • Work-study earnings do not count against TANF.  DSHS subtracts half of other earned income from your TANF.

Yes. You can get Working Connections Child Care (WCCC) for any hours you work.

If your schooling and your work-study hours are part of your IRP, you can get childcare for those times.  Read Working Connections Child Care to learn more.

Medical benefits:  No. 

Food stamps:  Maybe. Food stamps has work requirements. They are different from TANF requirements.  

You are excused (exempt) from food stamps work requirements if you are in college at least half-time and one of these is true:

  • You are responsible for 50% or more of a child’s care that is age 5 or younger.
  • You are responsible for 50% or more of a child’s care that is age 6 through 11 when you cannot get childcare so you can go to class and work 20 hours a week or do work-study.
  • You are a single parent caring for your child age 11 or younger.
  • You have parental responsibility of a child who is age 11 or younger. The child’s parents and your spouse do not live with you.

If you think DSHS made a mistake, you can speak with a supervisor, ask for a hearing, or both.  Read Representing Yourself at an Administrative Hearing to learn more.

Read Questions and Answers about WorkFirst to learn more. Alternatively, read more about TANF and WorkFirst at WashingtonLawHelp.org.


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Last Review and Update: Feb 16, 2022
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