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Employment and College

While popular media and probably many of the adults around you portray college as a time of recreation and leisure, in reality most college students will not find themselves free of the burdens associated with employment. In fact, the majority of college students work at least part-time while they are enrolled in school. Whether it’s on or off campus, part-time or full-time, work is part of the college lifestyle. As with most things, though, some ways to approach college employment are better than others.

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The old saying "beggars can't be choosers" may very well apply to college employment. Most college students are looking for jobs on a part-time basis in a town where they have few or no connections, after having only worked a couple years at most. Given this situation, you may have to take whatever job you’re offered and do your best to earn and save money. However, there are still strategies you can employ to make the most out of your college work experience.

Set Hours and Boundaries

Attending college full-time is a full-time job, so working full-time while attending school full-time tends to be tough, if not impossible. While there’s a lot of incentive for students to be juggling a money-making job and a degree program that will ultimately result in even better pay, it’s actually very difficult to make it work. Whether you are going to school while continuing to work at a job you already have or finding new work, it’s important to set boundaries and make sure your employer knows and respects that school is your top priority.

If you don’t believe me, look at the numbers. A growing body of research suggests that students who work full-time are less likely to graduate on time and tend to earn lower grades than students who only work part-time. The good news is that part-time work seems to either help or have no effect on students’ graduation rates and grade point averages, so working during school is an option for paying your bills, even if it isn’t necessarily a viable way to pay your full tuition. The magic number seems to be about 15 to 20 hours a week; students who keep their employment commitment below that point tend to benefit from college employment, while students who exceed that range tend to have trouble balancing work and college.

Go Where the Money Is

College can be a time to try out lines of work that are fun, quirky, or just plain lucrative. Working in a café, bar, or restaurant can be great ways to earn money while in school since the tips you earn each shift make up for the limited number of hours you work. While they’re likely unrelated to your post-graduation plans, these jobs can look good on a résumé, too. This experience shows you work well under pressure and are capable of multitasking and of at least some level of polite interaction, which are all great job skills.

Less conventional lines of work can also pay off. Jokes can be made about college students serving as lab rats for medical studies or as itinerant labor for farming or construction, but I know students who have fed and clothed themselves for four years with such activities. One of my college roommates paid a sizable chunk of his tuition by driving a beet truck each fall — a family friend had a farm about an hour from campus and would call him in to help with the harvest. He had to put in 14-hour days at the start of the semester, but the money he made was more than what he would have earned in months at the traditional minimum wage mall job. If your campus isn’t located smack in the middle of a beet field (and for your sake, I hope it isn’t), you can still explore other opportunities for temporary, seasonal or contract work, ranging from manual labor to conducting field research for academic departments.

Gain Experience

Ideally, college employment plays an important role in building your résumé and making you more competitive for jobs in your intended field after graduation. Student job and internship opportunities allow you to gain valuable experience in any of a variety of fields, while simultaneously focusing on your studies. The integration of work and study can enrich your experience in both and can help you land your dream career. So start by looking for part-time jobs or internships in your field or in a position that will build useful skills for your intended career area.

Federal work-study jobs can be particularly good for this, as many place students in roles that involve far more than just running a dishwasher or emptying trash cans. Most work-study jobs are assigned to offices on campus and typically involve some administrative duties, as well as other tasks that may be more specific to the mission of your employer. Work-study occasionally can be used to fund positions at non-profit organizations off-campus as well. Working in an office or department related to your career goals can be an invaluable experience, as can working in an office related to something you’ve never even considered as a career. You can gain new knowledge and experience and even change the direction of your career plans.

Explore Other Resources

Since student employment tends to work best as a supplement to other sources of income, rather than as a primary resource for paying all your bills and your tuition and fees, you will want to look at other ways of paying for school. College financial aid, such as grants, scholarships and student loans may be necessary to keep you on track for graduation.

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Last Reviewed: June 2022