In an era when unemployment remains stubbornly high and employers complain that job candidates lack skills, more and more Americans are attending college. But cuts in state funding to higher education have caused tuition rates to soar, and job loss has forced many families to reduce the amount of financial assistance they provide for their college-bound children. As a result, more college students than ever -- approximately 72 percent of undergraduates -- work full- or part-time. Students who work full time and students who work part time face serious challenges balancing work with school, but in the process they may gain some benefits.
About 20 percent of U.S. undergraduate college students work full time while going to school. Unfortunately, those students are 10 percent less likely to get their degrees than their unemployed peers, according to a study commissioned by Upromise. Because each student has only so much time and energy, the time away from school toward full-time work is a drag on these students’ GPAs. Further, this lack of time limits their class choices and library access. Many students who work full time must take classes part time to do well. This means more years spent working and studying, which can cause students to become frustrated and drop out.
Studies have shown that working 20 hours a week or less has no significant impact on a student’s grades. In fact, students who work 15 hours a week or less while attending college have higher grades than students who don’t work. Researchers believe that working pushes students to manage their time more effectively and to eliminate unproductive activities, such as watching television.
However, a full 50 percent of undergraduate part-timers clock in 20 hours or more per week, and these students are more likely to drop out of college than students who work fewer hours. While 86 percent of students who work less than 20 hours a week graduate from college, only 79 percent of students who work 20 to 30 hours a week obtain their diplomas.
If you have to work to get through school, working on campus is your best bet. Students who work on campus have higher GPAs and are more likely to stay in school than students whose jobs take them off campus. Researchers believe that on-campus jobs allow students to feel more connected to the college community and to build stronger networks with professors and fellow students. On-campus jobs are also more likely to be related to academics or to the student’s chosen career. Unfortunately, as “Inside High Ed” points out, systematic budget cuts to higher education have made these opportunities increasingly rare.
While working part time or full time poses stresses for the undergraduate college student, there are benefits to working. In any kind of job, students develop many of the business “soft skills” that employers look for, such as punctuality and an ability to deal with a diverse array of people. Additionally, students who work off campus in higher-level, more sophisticated jobs as bank officers or as salespeople are able to enhance their resumes for their careers, and these students also have lower dropout rates than those who work as cashiers or burger-flippers. If you have to work full time, a more demanding, career-oriented job is likely to give you the psychological boost you need to keep it up for the long haul.
Laura Holland Fletcher has graduate level training in ESL, linguistics and the teaching of writing. She taught ESL and college writing for more than 10 years in both the US and Asia. She also writes for local and national magazines that cover legal, educational and social justice issues.