For many undergraduates, work is as much a part of the campus experience as cramming and pizza
Joshua Howton has relied on loans, scholarships, and grants to pay for his five years at the University of Texas-Austin. But he has also put in long hours of hard work. The Dallas native filled orders for cappuccinos and cafe au laits his freshman year as a Starbucks barista. The next year, tired of commuting, Howton opted for an on-campus job as a tour guide. He traded that gig his junior year for a position in the university's career center, where he has stayed. "My family did not contribute to my education at all," says Howton, who will graduate this spring with a degree in communications. "By working, I was able to finance my living expenses and pay for books and clothes."
Working in college is familiar territory for many students. With total costs expected to average $32,000 this fall at private schools (and roughly half that at in-state public universities), more and more students are working to help pay the bills. A whopping 74 percent of full-time students juggle work and school, according to a study by the Higher Education Project of the State Public Interest Research Groups. Forty-six percent of them log 25 hours or more a week on the job, with 1 in 5 working full time.
Keeping it real. As the number of working students has grown, so has the emphasis on real-world work experience. "In my day, I was a summer camp counselor until the day I graduated," says Jody Queen-Hubert, executive director of co-op education and career services at Pace University in New York. "We recognize how competitive the world is. We are pushing students to get pre-professional experience before they graduate."
That's good news for cash-strapped students, who find that jobs requiring more experience or skills often pay well. The average undergraduate student at Pace who participated in a co-op program earned around $13.65 an hour and worked 15 to 20 hours a week.
Engineering students are paid particularly well. Caroline Monroe, a chemical engineering major, participated in a co-op program at Penn State University. She earned $18 to $19 an hour working full time for a vaccine manufacturer the spring semester of her junior year. With her earnings, Monroe quickly recouped the $871 cost of the co-op program, paid off about $3,000 of her semester's tuition at Penn State, and bought a 2005 Honda. And she learned the ins and outs of a plant, something that would have been impossible to do at Penn State itself. "It's not realistic for a campus to have that kind of equipment," says Monroe, who extended her stay to work full time during the summer. "It's a completely different world and industry."
Some companies offer tuition reimbursement to employees. UPS's Earn and Learn program provides between $2,000 and $3,000 for school costs for part-time workers, on top of wages. Kathleen O'Leary, 19, took advantage of the program to attend Jefferson Community and Technical College in Louisville, Ky. She works 25 to 30 hours a week at UPS headquarters, where she manages 11 employees who route packages, while attending school full time. O'Leary, who hopes to transfer to a four-year university and major in business after two years at Jefferson, expects that her work experience will also translate into a better job at UPS. "I want to keep moving up," she says. "I hope to move into a managerial position someday."
Even an on-campus job may afford the opportunity to build up a resume while banking cash. "We are running a business," says Janice Sutera, director of the career center at George Mason University in Fairfax, Va. "With everything we need to make this place work, there is a potential for student workers." Jobs swiping meal cards and monitoring the library are still available, but those that require more training such as website design or maintenance often offer higher wages.
Responsibilities. Take Howton, who doesn't simply answer phones or file papers at the University of Texas-Austin's career center. Over the past three years, he has designed and run advertising and marketing campaigns to draw more students to the center. After three years on the job, he now pulls in $10.50 an hour.
Still, most college students shouldn't expect--or even seek--riches while in school. Career counselors caution that most adults working full time, let alone students, would be hard-pressed to pay off upwards of $30,000 in annual costs. And while students who work 10 hours or less per week boast slightly higher grade-point averages than their peers do, studies show that those who work 25 hours or more a week often suffer academically, earning lower grades or dropping some classes altogether. Educational experts recommend that students who are finding it extremely difficult to make ends meet and working long hours should confer with a financial aid adviser to explore other funding options. After all, the primary job for those in college is to be a student.
This story appears in the April 17, 2006 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.