There was a time when a student could just work a summer job to help pay for college, but today more students are having to work their way through school to offset rising tuition costs.
In fact, the U.S. Census Bureau found that 72 percent of undergraduates work and one-fifth of those students worked full time.
Most part-time jobs that students find while in school pay lower hourly wages, says Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on the Education and the Workforce.
“You can’t make enough working retail to pay for a college degree,” he says. “High school jobs don’t pay enough to get you through college, and these are the types of jobs that college students typically get.”
But despite lower pay, college advising experts say that shouldn’t deter undergrads from pursuing part-time work. There are several positive outcomes, they say, that come from working during school – less in loans and better time management skills, to name a couple.
“I’m a big advocate of working during school,” says Sean Moore, founder of college financial planning service SMART College Funding. “If that means they’re working five, 10 or 15 hours a week, I think that helps build character and pays part of the cost of college.”
For students who are considering or planning to work while in school, here are several points to consider.
1. Work no more than 20 hours: Several studies, including one by the Department of Education, show that students who work fewer than 15 to 20 hours often report a higher GPA than those who don’t work at all.
“There’s kind of a window of one to 15 hours a week and maybe as high as 20 hours a work,” Moore says. “When you’re working more than 20 hours a week, it becomes harder to juggle everything.”
Grades and school completion rates start to drop when a student’s number of hours worked per week is more than 20 hours, experts say.
Moore says students may consider taking out a loan if work starts to affect school performance and other options – such as federal loans – have been exhausted.
2. Consider options other than work-study: When college senior Zach Schneider, 21, started his freshman year at American University, he was offered work-study as part of his financial aid package.
“What I found was the work-study program wasn’t as flexible as I wanted it to be. It wasn’t a really interesting job with what I wanted to do and it didn’t pay well,” the communications major says.
Under work-study, students earn the federal minimum wage – $7.25 – but may earn more, depending on the job.
Schneider says he did only one semester of work-study and found catering and restaurant work to pay better.
“It served two things for me: It was a way for me to make money and a way for me to eat very cheaply – I would get some level of a discount,” says the California native, who estimates his part-time earnings to be around $5,000 annually.
Experts say if a student can make more – rather than $7.25 an hour – then it’s better to take the higher paying job.
“But sometimes the reality is you have to take what you can get,” Moore from SMART College Funding says. “If work-study is available, on campus and you don’t have to commute or search, then that can be a viable option.”
3. Develop a business: Derek Sallmann, a senior at Wisconsin Lutheran College, earns money from his musical performances to cover college expenses.
“It’s good for everyone to have their own independent project whether you start your own business or sell something you hand make or perform or do art,” says the solo musician and biology major, who sings and plays guitar at different venues around Milwaukee. “You also learn business skills and how to operate in the real world.”
Sallmann says he earns as little as food for payment to $500 from performing at a gig, but really enjoys the flexibility of creating his own schedule. The 21-year-old says he’s made enough money from his music to offset the need for student loans.
“There’s nothing wrong or bad about taking out student loans; I just always thought it would be better if I could not do that,” he says.
His advice to students: “Find creative ways to make money whether it’s starting a lawn business in the summer or teaching something you’re good at. It’s always good to get creative to cut down on costs.”