Nearly Three in Four Students are Working to Help Pay for College. Is it a Good Idea?

Posted By Terri Williams on October 22, 2015 at 2:30 pm
Nearly Three in Four Students are Working to Help Pay for College. Is it a Good Idea?

Depending on his or her major, the average college student spends anywhere from 13 to 19 hours a week prepping for class (studying, writing papers, completing homework assignments, etc.). However, according to How America Pays for College, a recent study by Sallie Mae, nearly three-quarters of college students are simultaneously working to help pay for their education.

Results from the national study reveal that 74% of students were employed during the 2014-2015 school year. Many of these students are working a significant number of hours during the week to help keep college costs down – and experts are divided on how that affects their time at school. Some of the study’s results are excerpted below:

When students work

  • 70% of students worked year-round
  • 20% of students who worked year-round were enrolled in school on a part-time basis to help reduce costs
  • 7% of students who worked during breaks or during the summer were also enrolled in school on a part-time basis

How often students work

  • 44% of employed students worked between 11 and 20 hours a week
  • 24% of employed students worked between 21 and 30 hours a week

Where students work

  • 21% of students worked in retail
  • 16% of students worked in the food industry
  • 11% of students worked on campus
  • 9% of students worked in a factory or warehouse
  • 9% of students worked in an administrative or clerical setting
  • 3% of students had internships
  • 2% of students had entry-level jobs in their desired field

Infographic (8)


So – does working enhance or detract from the college experience? Does it hinder education or provide opportunities for professional growth? GoodCall rounded up a variety of students, parents, and experts to get their opinions – and, as you might expect, the responses were as diverse as the respondents.

Yes, students should work

According to Felice Rollins, founder of College Momentum, “Since most students attend college to prepare for a career, working while
 in school is as essential as taking any class. Students learn to develop a
 good work ethic, get career exposure, and get experience working with 
others in a non-academic setting.”  Most importantly, Rollins says a student who is
 helping to pay for college has “skin in the game – more 
incentive to take college seriously and graduate on time.

And Jennifer Lee Magas, an English professor at Fairfield University, adds, “Jobs can teach students about customer service, teamwork, working under pressure, time management, and other areas. These are all essential components in the real world, and what better way to prepare students than letting them sample it early?” Magas says life will always involve juggling multiple responsibilities and tasks as well as prioritizing. “As long as the student sets hours that will not overwhelm their time to work and socialize, then there should be no issue in allowing them to make money on the side,” she concludes.

Katherine Gauthier’s son graduated from Louisiana State University earlier this year, and she also believes that college students should work. “Becoming more financially independent and fiscally responsible is certainly the biggest reason to work, but let’s not overlook the less obvious benefits. Real life experience in time management, adapting to an organization’s culture, working as a team, and establishing potential networking contacts for later is invaluable,” says Gauthier. And, she says that this is approximately 20 hours a week that students are not spending binge watching TV or playing video games, sleeping all day, or getting into trouble. “My one caveat is that not all students can accommodate a work schedule and keep up academically,” she adds.

Mark Walush received a mechanical engineering degree from Drexel University
 this year

 and is a huge proponent of working through college – in fact, he says it was a mandatory
 part of the curriculum at Drexel. “We were required to go through three 6-month 
cycles of full-time work experience, where you would be placed through 
either the school system, where you apply and go on interviews to get the 
job, or through your own independent search. At graduation, you have your
 degree and 1.5 years of experience to get you ready for the real world.” Walush says he is confident that this experience led to him receiving multiple job offers and contributed to his confidence during the interview process.

No, students shouldn’t work

Brian Kearney graduated in May from Rowan University. He believes that some students can handle a job and full course load, while others may not be able to. Kearney says, “I did not work during my last two years of college, and was able to participate in school clubs, activities, and multiple internships, which undoubtedly prepared me for my job search. I was offered a job in New York City before I even graduated because of the experience I was able to attain, which wouldn’t have been possible if I had a job.”

Martyne Lo Russo’s son graduated from St. Johns’ University in 2011, and she also thinks it is a bad idea for college students to work to help pay for their 
education because the work commitment might interfere with studying. “More than that, it would interfere with the
 extra-curricular activities offered at the college.

 The college experience is about more than just studying and learning. It’s also about growing
 as an individual,” she says. Lo Russo acknowledges that sometimes students have to work while attending college. “But, personally, I would do everything in my power
 not to let that happen. There’s enough time later on to prepare and deal
 with real life,” says Lo Russo.

Working may be okay- in some cases

Donna Lubrano, an adjunct professor at Newbury College, says that many students have no choice when it comes to working their way through college. “It’s 
a double-edge sword though. Much of the work students do is lower level and may not have relevance to their course of study,” she says. Lubrano says that often, work interferes with required assignments, field trips, and other commitments.The demands of a job must be balanced with those of coursework.

Lubrano continues, “I had a student not show up for a final because she had to
 work. She was willing to sacrifice her grade for a work opportunity. This 
is a significant sacrifice on GPA and student learning. Multiply this per
 semester, per course, then the value of the time spent in the classroom is diminished.”

It’s a concern echoed by Dr. Ramani Durvasula, Professor of Psychology at California State University. “In my experience, students will often favor the demands of work over the
 classroom because a person can be fired from a job – and have to face the
 subsequent financial fallout. On the other hand, the worst thing that would happen in a 
class is that they fail – which can be costly because they 
spent money on a class that won’t count and which they now have to repeat -
 but they may not lose a roof over their heads.”

Durvasula says she might be in favor of working if the jobs provided skills that complement a student’s education or strengthened their resume – 
as long as the hours and demands are balanced against academic 
requirements. “The challenge then becomes if they work too much and their 
GPA suffers, they are hamstrung by a poor GPA that may make
 them less hirable for competitive jobs or to transition to graduate or
 professional school.” Durvasula says students don’t realize that “GPAs are like monkeys 
you can’t get off your back, and while strong work experience can help, it
 often does not balance out a subpar GPA.”

Michele Ramsey, Ph.D., an associate professor of Communication Arts & Sciences and Women’s Studies Penn State, Berks, says, “Students should definitely work at some point, though it doesn’t have to be during the school year. If students aren’t going to work during the semester, they should probably garner some work experience during the summer.”

However, she says, “Don’t work any more than you have to in order to pay for your basic needs. Too many students, in my experience, work to buy things that they don’t need right now – the latest piece of mobile technology, a big screenTV, an upscale car, et cetera. I encourage students to try and be patient and to understand the concept of delayed gratification. I try to help them understand that having all the latest gadgets isn’t really going to make them happier in the long run, but a lower GPA – or extra debt they incur through loans they didn’t have to take out – can make them unhappy for many years to come.”

Professor Ramsey says students are heading into one of the most competitive job markets in 
history, and their GPA may be the deciding factor. “The GPA (in both the major 
and overall) says more to an employee than just what a person’s possible
 intelligence level may be. A good GPA also says something to employers 
about time management, work ethic, how seriously a student took the 
opportunity – denied many others – to attend college, et cetera.” If an employer has to choose between two similar graduates, Professor Ramsey says the higher GPA will likely be the deciding factor.

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

You May Also Like