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The Busy Student’s Guide to Balancing Work and College

For decades, college was seen as a unique step on the journey to adulthood — a time before joining the “real world,” when students’ lives were centered around the classroom and the campus. Sure, lots of students had summer jobs to help pay for school when fall came around, but balancing work and college wasn’t traditionally part of the experience.

Today, however, “earning while learning” is “The New Normal,” per the title of the Georgetown Center for Education and the Workforce (CEW)’s landmark study of the subject. Between 70 and 80% of undergraduate college students are now working while in college; around 35% of them work full-time jobs in addition to their class work. The 14 million Americans who balance work and college represent 10% of the entire labor force — and many of them are struggling to keep it all together.

As The Atlantic points out, when working in college doesn’t work out, the consequences can be devastating:

“Though they’re sacrificing time away from the classroom, many working students will still graduate with at least some student-loan debt. And working full-time can shrink the chance that students will graduate at all, by cutting into the time available for studying and attending classes.

“What’s troubling is that those who tend to struggle under the weight of difficult work and educational burdens are often those who have few other options when it comes to financing their education. They’re disproportionately older students who are black or Hispanic and low-income.This group is more likely to work out of necessity and to attend community colleges where resources—like career counseling—are scarce.They’re less likely to have access to outside financial and social resources to assist them in paying for school or finding a job afterward.They’re also less likely to finish school at all.

One of the worst-case scenarios for college students is attending school, accumulating debt and dropping out. That means facing all the drawbacks of student loans, but without the benefit of a degree.

While working during college is a fact of life, it’s vital to keep school and work in balance. Here are a few strategies we’ve discovered to do so.

Embrace your strengths — but be flexible.

While the work/college balance may have its drawbacks, the CEW also found that it can also enhance your education, if it aligns with your major. They say, “A job is more powerful as an educational tool when it provides exploratory learning that supplements or complements a student’s field of study. … A job is most likely to be complementary to academic

skills for the 80 percent of baccalaureate majors pursuing career-related majors such as science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), business, education, and healthcare.”

In other words, your college job can actually be a benefit to your education if you can find work that relates to your field of study. Your school’s work-study office is your #1 source to start looking for relevant positions right on campus; make sure your financial aid package indicates that you’re work-study eligible if you want to take that route.

[Visit StudentAid.gov to learn more about work-study eligibility]

For other working opportunities in your field, turn to your professors and advisors. They have a lifetime of connections in their field, and can help match you up with an employment opportunity or paid internship that matches your skills and interests.

That said, there may not be a perfect fit in terms of interest, timing and wages — and that’s okay! If your main reason for working is to earn extra money, you may have to settle for something outside your area of study. That doesn’t mean you should stop searching, though. Continue looking for opportunities, and take advantage of volunteer and enrichment options offered through your classes. Whether it’s at work, on campus or on your own time, the more you can concentrate on your major, the more success you’ll have.

Manage your time — and don’t do too much at once.

Working, interning, volunteering, going to class, doing homework — it all may sound like it takes a ton of time. And it does! One of the most important things you can do to balance work and college is to keep them separated. Don’t be tempted to spend work time on school tasks, and avoid trying to keep up with work when you should be in class or studying. Multi-tasking may seem tempting when there’s only so many hours in a day, but it usually ensures that you’re not doing a great job at either task.

If you’re self-disciplined, taking some of your classes online can help ease the schedule crunch. Online courses typically allow you to check out lectures and work your way through class work at your own pace, giving you more flexibility and allowing you more chances to tailor your job hours to your preferred schedule.

If you’re an older student, balancing work and college can be even more complicated — especially if you have family obligations. You can minimize stress by attending dedicated online colleges and taking one or two courses at a time; you can also see many of the benefits of higher education by pursuing a two-year degree or a certificate program. (These are helpful on their own, and can also pave the way toward a bachelor’s degree down the road.)

[Mental Health America offers tips for when you’re feeling overwhelmed]

However you choose to pursue college, it’s a valuable investment: according to the CEW’s Working Learners’ Report: “Working learners were much more likely than their non-enrolled counterparts to move out of education into managerial and professional occupations and STEM occupations, which suggests that education is in fact an important factor in upward mobility.”

The old model of “working your way through college” doesn’t apply anymore.

Paying for college is a struggle for a majority of students, and you may feel like your only option is to work more and more hours to earn money. But that’s a mistake. The old summer job market for teens and students is largely nonexistent anymore, and as The Atlantic reports:

Even full-time work may not completely cover the cost of tuition and living expenses. … if a student worked a full-time job at the federal minimum wage, they would earn just over $15,000 each year, certainly not enough to pay for tuition, room, and board at many colleges without some serious financial aid.

Knowing the costs of college exceed what you’re likely to earn, it’s important to keep work in perspective. Your job can be part of paying your living expenses but, dollar for dollar, the time you spend applying for scholarships, researching financial aid opportunities and improving your academic resume is far more lucrative.

How should you ensure that you’ve got time to do it all? Good budgeting — not just of time, but of money. Take some summer free time to build a budget that makes sense, and estimate how much you’ll need to earn at work. Then commit to spending those hours on the job, and no more. (The “standard” recommendation is 15 hours per week, but that may not be right for everybody.)

Understanding your budget and translating it into a work commitment is a key step as you strive to balance work and college. Combine that understanding with good time management and a job that enhances your studies, and you’ll be well on your way to a degree that leaves you ready for what’s next.

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