Conventional wisdom goes something like this: Some work is good for college students, but too much work can make it harder for them to focus on their classes and ultimately graduate. Most colleges and universities stick by the recommendation that 10-20 hours a week can actually be helpful to a student in numerous ways, especially in developing real-world skills such as showing up, taking direction, and being responsible. In fact, a 2006 study determined that students who work fewer than 15-20 hours actually earn higher grades that students who do not work at all.
So, just how many college students work? A study from 2011 reported that over 70% of undergraduates were working while in college and about 20% were working more than 35 hours a week. In some cases, college students have to work full-time because of obligations and expenses that cannot be covered by financial aid or family support. In other cases, students want to work because it gives them a sense of control and contribution and helps them from constantly asking for support from their family.
It is a good idea, then, to have a conversation about working (or not, or not that much) with your student rather than assume you know what is best. Here are some questions to get the conversation started:
- Do you need to work?
- Do you want to work?
- How frequently do you need or want to work?
- What kinds of jobs would be best for you and your class schedule?
The last question can lead you and your student to talk about the options for working as there are a variety ways to earn money during college. Some are better than others, and some are easier to balance with the demands of college. The following is a list that you can use to continue the conversation and it comes with a review of the pros and cons of each.
- Federal work-study. Your student has to qualify for federal work-study money first and then they have to obtain a job on campus that allows them to earn that money. The total amount your student qualifies depends on the level of family contribution. The amount is usually minimum wage or just a few dollars more than minimum wage, and the hours are usually capped at no more than 10-20 a week.
- Pros: Students work in offices or departments on campus, which can help them stay connected and develop relationships with faculty and staff. Student workers often enjoy flexibility in their hours as the supervisors know they are fitting their classes around their work schedule.
- Cons: The amount your student can make may be limited during the semester. Also, there is usually no guarantee that your student can obtain a job. Just because you qualify for work-study doesn’t mean that you will get to earn that money.
- Institutional job. Many institutions provide institutional money to hire student workers; this is different from work-study as your student won’t have to qualify for financial aid to be eligible to work. The pay is usually minimum wage or just a few dollars more per hour and the hours are often limited to no more than 20 a week.
- Pros: Just like federal work-study positions, students work in offices or departments on campus, which can help them stay connected and develop relationships with faculty and staff. Student workers often enjoy flexibility in their hours as the supervisors know they are fitting their classes around their work schedule.
- Cons: The amount your student can make may be limited during the semester.
- Part-time off-campus. We know many students who work customer service jobs off-campus to help meet their college expenses. This
- Pros: Students are able to earn money, not limited by federal or institutional rules, to pay for college.
- Cons: Students may not have flexibility to determine their work schedule and may be required to work early, late, or overnight shifts, which could negatively affect their coursework.
- Full-time off-campus. Not recommended, but sometimes a necessity for students, full-time off-campus work can be balanced with going to college.
- Pros: Students are able to earn more money to pay for college expenses. They may also receive additional benefits such as health insurance and tuition waiver programs.
- Cons: Students may have to take a reduced course load to mitigate the squeeze on their time and energy.
- Gig work, or irregular one-time or limited-time jobs such as babysitting or house- or pet-sitting can be another way that college students can earn money. There are websites and apps devoted helping people find work and connect with those who need one-off tasks. Your student’s college may offer additional resources to help match students with community job needs.
- Pros: Gigs may offer enough earning potential to allow your student to have spending money for nonessentials. They may also lead to steadier work.
- Cons: Gigs are not as likely to be reliable sources of income.
Whatever your viewpoint of working in college, more and more students are finding they need to work and want to work to earn money and develop critical soft skills that can help them gain internships, steady part-time jobs, and full-time jobs after college. Talking with your student about what they need to do and want to do, as well as what their options are, can be an important conversation to have.