The Pros and Cons of Working While in College

This article was originally published on the U.S. News & World Report website
Written by Emma Kerr

Working a part-time job while in college can help students pay for personal expenses, supplement financial aid and gain valuable work experience. On top of that, recent research shows those who do work have higher earnings later in their careers.

“The more you work during your first year of college, the more you earn after college,” says Daniel Douglas, co-author of a 2019 Rutgers Education and Employment Research Center paper and visiting assistant professor of educational studies and social science research methods at Trinity College in Connecticut.

There are a few possible explanations for this trend. The first, Douglas says, is that “if you’re working during college, you’re gaining important work skills that will be valued by future employers. You know about showing up on time, following directions given by a supervisor, and being generally diligent in your duties.”

Those who balance work and school may also go on to have higher earnings because they have a larger, more developed resume and a stronger social network, he says.

Close to 70% of all college students work while enrolled, according to the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Some colleges, such as Williams College in Massachusetts, even expect that students will work while in school. The student summer earnings expectation is $1,500 and the campus job earnings expectation is $2,700 for the class of 2023, according to the school’s website.

“We frame the earnings expectation as a real opportunity for students on campus,” says Ashley Bianchi, director of financial aid at Williams. These opportunities include work at a library, as a teaching assistant, in the theater or in admissions, she says.

“Working on campus can be a great opportunity for students to understand what a college is and how it works … Every college out there runs a small city within their realm, so your interests can be met in so many different ways.”

But prospective students budgeting for college must also weigh the drawbacks of working while enrolled full time in school, and consider the possibility of limited employment opportunities amid the current economic downturn caused by the coronavirus pandemic. The wages at jobs typically held by students are rarely enough to pay for college costs such as tuition and fees, and some experts note that working too much can begin to affect a student’s academic performance.

“In typical circumstances for the average student, it’s great for them to hold down a part-time job. Students who work a moderate amount of hours – up to 15, maybe 20 hours a week – those students actually on average do better in school than students who don’t work at all,” says Shannon Vasconcelos, director of college finance at Bright Horizons College Coach.

“But for students who have significant responsibilities beyond classwork, it’s definitely more of an issue,” she says, noting students heavily involved in extracurricular activities may not be able to keep up with a part-time job on top of everything else.

Choosing an on-campus employer, or one that is willing to provide flexibility during, for example, finals week, can help students find a balance, experts say.

Students who work while in college must also look out for any possible effect on their existing financial aid eligibility, which can be diminished depending on a student’s earnings.

It can actually cost students to have a job, Vasconcelos says. Those earning more than about $7,000 will see their income factored into the financial aid calculation.

“There is a very harsh assessment in the financial aid formula: (Student) earnings beyond that $7,000 allowance are assessed at a 50% assessment rate, so every dollar you earn beyond that $7,000, you lose 50 cents in financial aid eligibility,” Vasconcelos says.

Ultimately, the choice to work while attending college full time is an individual one, and students must be organized and find a balance between the two commitments.

“This isn’t a trade-off between whether or not you should work or whether or not you should finish college,” Douglas says. “Work during college has a positive impact on earnings, but so does completing a degree.”


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