By Anthony P. Carnevale
Many of today’s college students hear stories of times gone by when their parents paid for their college tuition by working a summer job. Even though it is no longer possible to work your way through college, more than 70 percent of students still work while enrolled.
Twenty-five percent of all working learners are simultaneously employed full time and enrolled in college full time, likely leaving them burning the candle at both ends. About 40 percent of undergraduates and 76 percent of graduate students work at least 30 hours per week, and they are disproportionately Blacks and Latinos.
Although many students need to work to help pay tuition and living expenses, doing so can hurt their academic performance and chances of degree completion. Fifty-nine percent of low-income students who work 15 hours per week or more had a C average or lower. If work becomes too overwhelming, students could fail classes or drop out of the academic program — leaving them worse off in the long run.
Meanwhile, high-income working learners are often working to bolster their resumé or to build on what they learn in class. When working in college takes up fewer than 15 hours per week, and relates to students’ career interests, it can complement what they learn in the classroom and benefit their career in the long run. Affluent students typically have more flexibility to approach their work this way, as they are not constrained by needing to earn money. This type of work allows them to learn more about potential career paths — and even about what they might not want to pursue — while still leaving them with sufficient time to study. When college graduates start applying for jobs, past work experience can be advantageous for getting references, networking, and making more connections with people in their field of interest.
Many students often need to work more than 15 hours, or can’t work an unpaid internship, out of financial necessity. The following strategies can help students make the most of paid work experiences.
- Look for quality, paying jobs that relate to major or career interests, rather than jobs in the dining hall, to gain relevant professional experience.
- Take advantage of career counseling, and ask for help finding and navigating the job and internship search.
- Reducing college costs overall may enable you to work less. Be sure to apply for financial aid and a wide array of external scholarships.
- When it comes to taking out loans, consider potential future earnings for your major to make informed decisions about what kind of monthly payment you will be able to afford. Borrowing more may be worth it to avoid working while in college.
Working while enrolled can enrich students’ learning and help prepare them for their careers. Ultimately, students need to connect the two, making plans with both academic and career goals in mind. Pursuing higher education while working is a balancing act, but it is possible to use both to be positioned to succeed long after college.
Dr. Carnevale is Director and Research Professor of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the link between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.