Get a Job. It'll Do You Good—Really!

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The rising cost of tuition is making many students' dreams of a summer of lazy R&R or an impressive but unpaid internship unaffordable. Instead, they're staring real work in the face. The right jobs not only raise some cash but can improve grades and boost a career. However, financial aid counselors warn that extra earnings can backfire in some cases (read to the end to find out why).

Many counselors suggest students earn about $4,000 a year, enough to cover books and personal expenses. In fact, many colleges expect students to contribute about $2,000 toward their college expenses anyway, either from savings or from vacation jobs. To raise that in one summer, students would have to work at least 20 hours a week for 12 weeks for at least $6 an hour. Students who blow off any earnings on summer fun would need to work more hours—or find a better-paying job.

Working during the school year can raise an additional $2,000—and a student's prospects. Studies show undergraduates who work about 10 hours a week at college actually do better in school than those who work many more or fewer hours. More important, students responsible for earning their own spending money tend to rein in extravagances.

Students receiving aid such as Pell grants, which are based on low income, may want to stick with work-study jobs. Because these are usually on campus and because they're coordinated with the academic schedule, they're the most convenient option. And some jobs, such as lab or research assistantships, can be résumé enhancers. Best of all, earnings from work-study jobs aren't subtracted from future financial aid.

Off-campus jobs often pay better. But students who earn more than $3,080 outside of a work-study job could see a reduction in need-based aid of as much as 50 cents of every dollar above that in 2009. (Most scholarships should not be affected.)

One note of caution for moms and dads: Parents of students who qualify for Pell grants (typically, families earning less than about $50,000 a year) should do the math carefully before taking on a second job to help pay junior's tuition. After taxes and reductions in aid, they could end up gaining less than 50 cents for every dollar in the paycheck.

TIP

You fill in your FAFSA and the replies come flooding back, but they're full of jargon. The next step? FinancialAidLetter.com helps make sense of them—with real examples of real letters.