Each year, millions of college students face the challenge of balancing school and work, as more and more students decide – for a variety of reasons – to work full- or part-time while enrolled in higher education. Gone are their parents’ days, when a summer job could fuel the following nine months of college tuition and expenses. These days, tuition rises without fail every year and students are left struggling to find additional ways to keep their loan balances in check.
A report last year by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce found that seventy percent of college students work at least part-time while enrolled in their studies. Some take a part-time job for the experience or for a social boost, but the majority of students who work while in school are doing so to offset the rising cost of tuition and education-related living expenses. For the student who is faced with the choice of either taking out additional student loans or working a job to pay down the cost of school, it is important to carefully weigh the pros and cons of working while attending classes.
The first and most obvious benefit is an increase in income, and for some students there really is no financial option except to work while in school. However, there is evidence to support that the benefits of working while in school go beyond merely money. In fact, Professor Laura Perna, of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education, states that working a modest number of hours per week while in school leads to higher graduation rates for college students. The reasons for this are somewhat speculative.
For some, a part-time job on campus might be beneficial to their studies if it affords them a quiet place and time to do schoolwork. For example, many colleges offer work-study jobs as part of their financial aid packages, and some provide an opportunity for students to study while on the clock. Working late hours at the school library’s circulation desk, at a time when there aren’t frequent visitors but the library is open, can give a student the focused hours they need to study for an upcoming test or write an essay virtually uninterrupted. At the same time, they are present at their job and earning extra income.
For others, an on-campus job might have positive social benefits that increase their feeling of connection to the campus and keep them motivated and focused on finishing their classes. For still others, a job might provide mentorship either on- or off-campus and give them the opportunity to gain professional skills and important networking opportunities. These may be powerful motivators to stay in school, and could be one reason why those that work part-time are more likely to graduate. Working keeps them engaged with the campus community. Being engaged, in turn, helps them to focus on graduation.
On the other hand, it’s easy to see how working too much diverts both time and energy away from studies and could have an opposite, and devastating, impact on graduation rates. The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce report, titled Learning While Earning: The New Normal, found that roughly twenty-five percent of college students who work are working full-time while simultaneously attending school full-time. Understandably, that can lead to a decline in academic success. The benefits of part-time work evaporate when classes no longer take center stage and schoolwork suffers as a result.
About forty percent of undergraduates and seventy-six percent of graduate students work at least thirty hours a week, according to the Georgetown report. The numbers of students simultaneously working to support themselves has grown over the years and continues to grow. In fact, the combination of “ongoing learning” with “ongoing earning” is what the report refers to as the “new normal,” meaning it has now become more common than students who attend school without working at all.
More than half of working students are engaged in work in either sales, food service, or personal services fields. Some of the most common positions held by students are retail help and food servers in restaurants. This work isn’t enough to pay for college, but it is sometimes enough to pay for rent, groceries, or to help out family members.
Another aspect students need to consider when deciding whether and how much to work during school is whether a paid job will interfere with their ability to gain meaningful, career-related experience through paid or unpaid internships. Research by the Economic Policy Institute found that graduates who complete internships during school are more likely to have higher average starting salaries right out of college than those who did not participate in internships.
Typically, internships will offer students a higher quality of work experience, more desirable to future employers, than a typical starting-wage, part-time job. And while some internships are paid, many are unpaid and offer only the rewards of the work or, at best, academic credit during the semester. However, they often do provide invaluable job experience and networking within a chosen field.
Ultimately, the pros and cons of working while attending school will be very different depending upon the individual student. For those that have a choice between working and taking out extra loans, the trick may very well be to find the sweet spot of working just enough to develop professional skills and offset living expenses, while keeping the number of hours low enough that work does not take priority over school. Even retail and food service jobs can increase communication skills and offer a chance to show future employers that the applicant has the ability to manage his or her time effectively.
For those students who are able to find a part-time job in their field, they will benefit from increased professional exposure and a chance to network with those already doing the job they aspire to. Just as an example, nursing students may find it helpful to work as a certified nursing assistant while in school or to pick up a part-time clerical job in a doctor’s office or nursing home. By finding a part-time job whose benefits go beyond the financial, students stand to gain a great deal from working while in college. Have you been a tutor? Have you freelanced in college? Let us know in the comments.