For many students staring down today’s higher education bubble, the choice to work their way through school isn’t much of a choice at all; they have to. Tuition prices have outraced inflation between 1.2-2.1 time inflation in recent years.
In previous articles in this series we’ve covered the areas where students can get the most bang for their buck; graduating on time or even early through cost effective measures like CLEP tests and dual enrollment at a community college, and aggressively applying for grants and scholarships. Working through school is next in line.
Most studies done on working students concern part-time work; each study varies, but a common number seems to be between 1-20 hours a week is manageable by the average student. (Is working full-time in college possible? Yes, this staff writer did it for several semesters, but wouldn’t recommend it; more on that later.)
Depending on the year and the school studied, the good news is, students that work between one and 20 hours a week have higher GPAs than students that don’t work at all, to the tune of 3.13 for working freshmen and 3.04 for non-working freshmen students. The same study warns that students that work more than 20 hours per week saw their GPAs drop to 2.95.
Money, however, is the primary motivating factor for students that work; working at minimum wage (currently $7.25 an hour) for 20 hours a week year round nets a student $7,540 a year before taxes. When combined with scholarships and a shortened path through school, working in college becomes an important tool in reducing a graduate’s student debt burden after graduation.
Students also learn other important skills on the job, most importantly the ability to ruthlessly optimize your time. It’s difficult to spend countless hours a day on Facebook when you have to worry about making sure your assignments and test prep are in order before you head off to work. However, for students just stepping up to university studies, it’s also probably a good idea to ease into a work/school schedule. Over time, you’ll realize when you have to buckle down, and when you can relax a little. (Note: it may be a good idea to not work at all during your first mid-term and finals, to make sure you don’t underestimate the time you’ll need to study.)
Working also helps you to quickly identify if you should even be in school at all. If working menial labor or a job that bores you to distraction doesn’t motivate you to finish your studies, you should probably rethink why you’re in school in the first place. Working these kinds of jobs can also help you to quickly realize exactly what you don’t want to to do for a career.
Working also forces students to quickly seek a work-school-life balance; students learn to jealously guard their free time, something they might not do if their entire day consisted of hitting the books at 10 a.m. and knocking off for the day at 3 p.m.
Budgeting also quickly enters the student’s lexicon; once you calculate how many shingle bundles have to be lugged up a ladder to purchase that case of beer, the buying decision takes on a whole new meaning. It becomes harder to part with that hard-earned money, but also mom’s and dad’s, when you realize exactly how much effort goes into earning it.
While the benefits are many, there are drawbacks to working through college. Students have to always be mindful that they’re working to facilitate earning a degree. Sometimes bosses forget that and assign too many hours, or perhaps too much responsibility, on the working student. Standing up for yourself in these situations, and requesting fewer hours is necessary, and itself a good skill to have.
Working can also sometimes alienate a student from the rest of their peers who don’t work, and it ensures a different college experience. It’s also harder to stay out all hours of the night doing the normal college thing when you’ve got to roll out of bed at 6 a.m. every morning. It makes earning a spot on the Dean’s list a little sweeter, but you also miss out on some of the social interaction that makes college so valuable.
Acknowledging the good and the bad, when hunting for that part-time college job, it pays to keep an open mind. Look to areas where you have an interest, first, but don’t be afraid to try something you have absolutely no experience in; you may find that you have a knack for something you had no idea you were good at.
Students should first look to areas they plan on majoring in. Securing a job in a field you plan on entering after graduation makes sense, even if you’re working as a janitor or a secretary. You’ll see what the day to day job is really like, and build contacts in the industry with people who see on a daily basis exactly how hungry you are to score a position in the field.
Don’t overlook on-campus work-study positions as teaching assistants, departmental assistants, administrative assistants, life guards, campus recreation assistants, and cafeteria workers. On-campus jobs eliminate the travel to-and-from work aspect that makes off-campus work so difficult. Even if on-campus work pays less than off-campus work (which it probably will) the money you save in gas costs, and the hassle of wrangling a parking spot and getting to class late may make it more than worth your time.
As long as students don’t sacrifice their studies, working through school can be a valuable piece of solving the financing puzzle, as well as an opportunity for maturity.