Learning Economics 101

Schools expect students to work part time. So do parents.


There once was a time when college students sat on the sunny campus quad debating the merits of Proust or Faulkner, or stayed up long into the night discussing economic principles. But now most students forgo philosophizing and spend their time working for dough.

"I like to have a lot of time to read and think and process what I'm attempting to learn," says Brian Estabrook, a senior European history major at Ohio State. "There needs to be open spaces to allow your mind to work." But working 20 to 25 hours per week early in his college career, first at an ice cream shop and then at a sandwich eatery, left less time for contemplation than the aspiring history teacher would have liked.

Fully 75 percent of all undergraduates under the age of 22 work, according to an American Council on Education analysis, typically to pay for tuition, fees, or living expenses (56 percent), earn spending money (32 percent), gain job experience (8 percent), or for other reasons (4 percent).

Even though research shows that students who work 20 hours or fewer a week tend to get better grades and are more likely to graduate than those who work more (and even get slightly better grades than students who don't work at all), more than half of undergrads who work log more than 20 hours weekly. "I have noticed that there is a relationship between how much I work and the kind of grades that I get," Estabrook says.

Juggling. Students who work say their paid jobs sometimes alter the classes they choose to take. The more hours they put in, the more likely they are to rejigger schedules. "I tried to take classes a little bit later because I knew right after work I was going to be a little bit fatigued," says Marcus Lomax, a University of Memphis sophomore who plans this semester to work a six-hour shift beginning at 3 a.m. loading for ups at $9.50 an hour. "I did the best I could to rearrange them a little bit, but most of them weren't scheduled later in the day, and they were necessary classes for me."

Like Lomax, the vast majority of students work off campus. But off-campus employers tend to be less understanding of students' educational needs than bosses directly connected to the university. And commuting to work can be expensive and time consuming.

Working also can pay diminishing returns to students receiving need-based financial aid. For the 2007-08 school year, the federal government allows students to earn $3,000 without affecting the following year's need-based aid. Above that amount, 50 cents of every dollar is added to the "expected family contribution," the government's estimate of what a family can afford to pay for college. So, a student who earns $6,000 would see his or her need-based aid reduced by $1,500 in 2008-09.

Students offered federal work-study get a better deal. They can pocket the designated work-study pay, plus $3,000 in other earnings, without any reduction in need-based aid. But only 14 percent of working students have work-study jobs.

Not only low-income students work, of course. While 75 percent of students whose parents' annual income is less than $30,000 work, so do 70 percent of students whose family incomes top $90,000.

Nearly two thirds of students who work say their parents expect them to. Ron Misiaszek, who owns a liquor store in New Hartford, N.Y., has two sons in colleges, and both have full-time jobs in the summer, plus helping out with the family business for extra pay. "Both of them have a car, and if you want to have a car, you have to pay for the gas and the insurance and your spending money," Misiaszek says. "To make their expenses, they really have to work, and they want to."

Helper. Other students work to try to spare their parents an avalanche of college costs or to avoid crushing student loan debt. "If I know it will help out a little bit and make just a tiny difference and help my parents out that year, I'll do it," Lomax says.

But it's not just parents or concern about debt pushing students toward working. Many colleges now expect students to keep their nose to the grindstone, at least in the summer or part time during the school year. Wellesley College in Massachusetts expects freshmen to put at least $1,250 from summer jobs to the amount their family must contribute toward college costs. That increases to $1,900 for sophomores and $1,950 for juniors and seniors, even if they study abroad or take an unpaid summer internship.