The Pros and Cons of Working While in College

Monday, June 3, 2024

Working a part-time job while in college can help students pay for personal expenses, supplement financial aid and gain valuable work experience. However, there are drawbacks students should be prepared for, including time restraints and impact on tuition assistance.

About 74% of part-time undergraduate students and 40% of full-time students in the U.S. were employed in 2020, according to the most recent data from the federal National Center for Education Statistics.

Potential Benefits of Working While in College

Working as a student can provide opportunities beyond paying for day-to-day expenses during the semester. Student employment can also lead to benefits after graduation, experts say.

"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 on the impact of student work during college and director of social science research 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.

Prior studies showed some negative short-term consequences associated with full-time work during college, including on grades and credits taken. But Douglas' report points to "a substantial post-college earnings premium associated with working during college" for students from non-elite schools.

Through the federal work-study program, some students receive financial aid for working during college. This program is offered to students who display need based on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA.

“Unlike other forms of federal financial assistance, these funds are earned and don’t go against direct charges from the institution. These funds are paid directly to the student commensurate with hours worked,” Dana Kelly, vice president of professional development and institutional compliance for the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, wrote in an email.

Brandi Fuhrman, associate vice provost and executive director of career development at Oregon State University, oversees student workers in the career development office. The office employs students as career assistants, who help with operational tasks in the career center and provide peer-to-peer advising.

On-campus employers sometimes hire students based on their academic major. For example, the marketing team in Oregon State's career development office is made up of marketing students who can use what they learn in the classroom while on the job.

"That’s a pretty common model around campus and I imagine other campuses as well," Fuhrman says.

Fuhrman acknowledges the importance of balancing school and work. Some schools manage the number of hours a student can work in a week for on-campus jobs affiliated with the college. Oregon State caps the number of hours to 24 a week, she says.

However, a cap on hours does not account for students working an additional job not affiliated with the college. Oregon State initially capped work time at 20 hours a week and raised the limit in an effort to dissuade students from seeking additional employment.

Potential Drawbacks of Working While in College

Prospective students budgeting for college must also weigh the drawbacks of working while enrolled full time in school. 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 hurt 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, senior director of college finance at Bright Horizons College Coach.

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