Learning Economics 101 | Education

May 21, 2020

There once was a time when college students sat on the sunny campus quad debating the merits of Proust or Faulkner, or stayed up long into the night discussing economic principles. But now most students forgo philosophizing and spend their time working for dough.

“I like to have a lot of time to read and think and process what I’m attempting to learn,” says Brian Estabrook, a senior European history major at Ohio State. “There needs to be open spaces to allow your mind to work.” But working 20 to 25 hours per week early in his college career, first at an ice cream shop and then at a sandwich eatery, left less time for contemplation than the aspiring history teacher would have liked.

Fully 75 percent of all undergraduates under the age of 22 work, according to an American Council on Education analysis, typically to pay for tuition, fees, or living expenses (56 percent), earn spending money (32 percent), gain job experience (8 percent), or for other reasons (4 percent).

Even though research shows that students who work 20 hours or fewer a week tend to get better grades and are more likely to graduate than those who work more (and even get slightly better grades than students who don’t work at all), more than half of undergrads who work log more than 20 hours weekly. “I have noticed that there is a relationship between how much I work and the kind of grades that I get,” Estabrook says.

Juggling. Students who work say their paid jobs sometimes alter the classes they choose to take. The more hours they put in, the more likely they are to rejigger schedules. “I tried to take classes a little bit later because I knew right after work I was going to be a little bit fatigued,” says Marcus Lomax, a University of Memphis sophomore who plans this semester to work a six-hour shift beginning at 3 a.m. loading for ups at $9.50 an hour. “I did the best I could to rearrange them a little bit, but most of them weren’t scheduled later in the day, and they were necessary classes for me.”

Like Lomax, the vast majority of students work off campus. But off-campus employers tend to be less understanding of students’ educational needs than bosses directly connected to the university. And commuting to work can be expensive and time consuming.

Working also can pay diminishing returns to students receiving need-based financial aid. For the 2007-08 school year, the federal government allows students to earn $3,000 without affecting the following year’s need-based aid. Above that amount, 50 cents of every dollar is added to the “expected family contribution,” the government’s estimate of what a family can afford to pay for college. So, a student who earns $6,000 would see his or her need-based aid reduced by $1,500 in 2008-09.

Students offered federal work-study get a better deal. They can pocket the designated work-study pay, plus $3,000 in other earnings, without any reduction in need-based aid. But only 14 percent of working students have work-study jobs.

Not only low-income students work, of course. While 75 percent of students whose parents’ annual income is less than $30,000 work, so do 70 percent of students whose family incomes top $90,000.

Nearly two thirds of students who work say their parents expect them to. Ron Misiaszek, who owns a liquor store in New Hartford, N.Y., has two sons in colleges, and both have full-time jobs in the summer, plus helping out with the family business for extra pay. “Both of them have a car, and if you want to have a car, you have to pay for the gas and the insurance and your spending money,” Misiaszek says. “To make their expenses, they really have to work, and they want to.”

Helper. Other students work to try to spare their parents an avalanche of college costs or to avoid crushing student loan debt. “If I know it will help out a little bit and make just a tiny difference and help my parents out that year, I’ll do it,” Lomax says.

But it’s not just parents or concern about debt pushing students toward working. Many colleges now expect students to keep their nose to the grindstone, at least in the summer or part time during the school year. Wellesley College in Massachusetts expects freshmen to put at least $1,250 from summer jobs to the amount their family must contribute toward college costs. That increases to $1,900 for sophomores and $1,950 for juniors and seniors, even if they study abroad or take an unpaid summer internship.

The University of California system suggests that students contribute $2,000 from full-time work during the summer and $3,000 from a part-time job during the school year to help pay college costs. To earn enough during classes, a student would have to work 14 hours a week at $9.60 an hour, the system says (although California’s minimum wage is now $7.50 an hour).

Students able to negotiate flexible schedules with employers seem to fare best. Estabrook now does odd jobs for a landlord near the Ohio State campus, allowing him to work 10 to 15 hours a week without disrupting his class schedule. Plus, it pays $10 an hour, better than his old food service gigs.

Some colleges are trying to keep students from putting in too many hours. At the College of the Ozarks in Point Lookout, Mo., students who work 15 hours each week for the college when classes are in session, plus put in two full 40-hour weeks a year, have their tuition completely covered. By working much of the summer, selected students who qualify for need-based aid may be able to cover their room and board, too.

Crystal Kluna, a senior business administration major at “Hard Work U,” as Ozarks bills itself, puts in her allotted hours hand-mixing apple butter, preserves, and cakes at the college’s fruitcake and jelly kitchen. She works an additional 15 to 20 hours per week at a local McDonald’s. “You have to manage your time well,” says Kluna, who will graduate debt free in December.

Other students find creative ways to earn money so that coursework can come first. Ayelet Firstenberg, a junior at the University of Miami, earns $7.50 an hour working seven hours per week at a work-study job in the university costume shop as a seamstress and wardrobe supervisor for student drama productions. But she also runs a small side business through a Facebook group she started, altering clothes for fellow students. “I usually charge $10 for hemming people’s pants and jeans, which is really easy but nobody seems to want to do it on their own,” she says. “It’s still cheaper than going to a tailor, and I have access to all the machines. My boss said it was ok if I use them in my spare time when I am not at official work.” For a dollar, Firstenberg will reattach a popped button and even show you how to sew it back on yourself.

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