You Can't Work Your Way Through College Anymore

New research shows that working through college isn't going to make a dent in student debt and could ruin your GPA.

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Working to pay for college doesn't work. Despite the fact that 40 percent of undergraduates work at least 30 hours per week while in college, tuition is too high for those hours to make much of a difference, a new report shows. 

Even toiling away full time probably won't yield nearly enough to pay for a traditional college education, said the report, released on Wednesday by Georgetown's Center on Education and the Workforce. The average college student working full time at minimum wage earns $15,080 annually before taxes, the report estimates. "Working might eventually cover tuition at a two-year program," said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown center and the report's lead author. "But the earnings aren't sufficient to even get close to covering a private, four-year school." 

Students have always had side gigs. In the decades leading up to 2008, as many as 80 percent of people who were enrolled in U.S. colleges were also active in the labor market, the report said. What has changed is the cost of tuition, which soared 46 percent between 2001 and 2012, to as much as $65,000 at some schools, which makes it unlikely that any job could cover the cost of school. The income from these vocations is largely supplemental: Students work to pay for books and living and travel expenses, said Carnevale. More recently, he said, they've also used college jobs as a way to acquire the skills they'll need after graduation. "A college education used to guarantee students some kind of entry-level job, but that's disappeared."

Working to pick up professional skills isn't such a bad idea. In fact, students who found work that complemented their education did better in college, Georgetown found. The culprit is when students work too much. 

"Depending on how much you work and what the work entails, working has a real impact on whether you'll complete your education and how well you'll do," said Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown center and co-author of the report. "Disadvantaged students who go to college tend to be risk-averse, so they are much less likely to take out student loans and more likely to work longer hours. If you work longer hours, you're less focused on education. Then the student isn't able to graduate on time or, more often, the student just gives up and drops out of school." 

The best amount of time to devote to working is 15 to 20 hours per week; exceeding that "can harm academic performance," the report said. If students can make that work educationally relevant—say, by scoring a paid internship—their chances of success are even higher. Georgetown analyzed data that found that 63 percent of college graduates who'd done paid internships got job offers, compared with 37 percent of those whose internships were unpaid (that job offer rate is only slightly higher than that for people with no internships at all—35 percent). 

"If you're an advantaged student at a selective college taking an internship because it adds to your educational experience, working more than 15 hours isn't necessarily going to harm you academically," said Carnevale. "The problem is that disadvantaged students aren't the ones taking those internships or adding to their résumés, and they are struggling."

The onus is on colleges to fix the system by funding more internships and enforcing meaningful work, said Carnevale. "Students can't work their way through college," said Carnevale. "But they're going to have to work."

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