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Working Students: Persistence Pays Off, but Dropout Risk Is High

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Earning a college degree is considered a key milestone for most Americans, as well as a positive influence on lifetime earning potential. But 4 out of 10 students who enroll in college to seek a four-year degree don’t complete one within six years, according to research organization Public Agenda.

Roughly two million students per year drop out of college, setting themselves up to earn on average $15,000 less per year than their degree-completing peers and often facing student loan burdens they’ll need to repay from lower-than-planned incomes.

Former US Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put it this way in a speech: “The most expensive degree is the one you don’t complete.”

Indeed, in 2012 Anthony Carnevale, director of the Center on Education and the Workforce at Georgetown University, stated that the cost of college dropouts to the US economy is roughly half a trillion dollars, both in terms of student loan defaults and in terms of lost potential income associated with higher-paying jobs enjoyed by college grads.

Working Full-Time to Pay for School

As college tuition has risen and the specter of loan debt looms over many young graduates, some students have moved away from the immediate pursuit of the traditional four-year college experience and have begun taking different approaches to their higher education.

Community and four-year colleges and universities have begun expanding online course offerings, teleteaching options, and schedules, plus enlisting support staff to address the ways in which a growing population of students need flexibility in their academic lives.

But for students who want or need to work full-time while in school, there’s a major risk: The top reason students drop out of college is difficulty balancing work and school obligations.

Among students who dropped out of college, 54% cited work-life balance as the reason, with the high cost of tuition (31%) a distant second cause, according to Public Agenda.

working students

Perversely, working too much while in college may defeat the purpose of college—graduating, so that your available work options will be more intellectually and financially meaningful than was the case without a degree.

When Does Work Interfere with College?

Working while in college can take many forms. It’s good to have spending money and if you can possibly find work related to your college major or future ambitions, it’s certainly beneficial to let work serve as a kind of learning lab or lay the opening tracks on a resume.

However, according to research from The Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, lower-income students are more likely to find minimum-wage service jobs that are unrelated to future goals and which don’t pay enough to outrun the costs associated with college.

This means “connected” and better-resourced students may find meaningful part-time work that positions them for future success, while students from lower-income backgrounds may find “bill paying work,” and then do too much of it.

While almost all students need money for everyday spending and living expenses, if they are working too many hours that money may come at an opportunity cost.

According to Georgetown, there are marked academic performance differences between those who work less and more than 15 hours per week. About 60% of students working less than 15 hours per week held a B or better average. But nearly half (47%) of students working more than 15 hours over a week had a C or below average.

working student

Georgetown’s research indicates working somewhere between 15 and 30 hours per week has become a “new normal” among today’s students. But those who work longer hours will need to take precautions to successfully manage time, grades, and schedules. Students who work too much and suffer academically risk losing out on merit-based grants and further educational opportunities.

Considering College as Its Own Job

College students who work longer hours are often averse to student loans, but because they are working long hours and typically for lower wages, they may turn to high-interest credit cards to float them while pursuing their degrees—a plight as serious (if not more so) as a student loan debt burden.

Understanding student loan terms, rates, and current and future income prospects can help students reassess their path through academia. Does it make more sense to borrow funds and complete a degree in a shorter time window versus moving more slowly while working at pre-graduation pay rates?

Additionally, students with lower incomes or lower-income family backgrounds may want to discuss their financial situation with academic and financial aid counselors. Some colleges offer grants to keep students on track to graduation.

Georgia State notes on its website that more than 70% of its students “even after grants, loans, scholarships, family contributions and the income generated from students working 20 hours a week, lack sufficient funds to attend college.”

To help clear the cost of attendance gap, the campus offers “Panther Retention Grants” which can help with the coming semester’s tuition bill or other important costs that students on budgets may struggle to fund.

It is important to think of attending college as your full-time job, and education loans as an investment in your future.

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Disclaimer: This blog post provides personal finance educational information, and it is not intended to provide legal, financial, or tax advice.