Working while in school is the norm for today’s college students. According to a 2018 report from the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (CEW), more than 70% of students between 1990 and 2015 worked while enrolled. And that number has steadily grown as college tuition and enrollment have increased.
So you may have to work while in college whether there are benefits or not. Regardless, it’s nice to know that effort will pay off in more ways than one. And if you’re on the fence about whether you should get a job while you’re in school, know that as long as you keep your hours below 20 per week, there are more positives than negatives to working a college job.
Benefits of Working a Job While in College
Working while in school definitely puts extra money in your pocket, but that’s not all. Well-chosen college jobs can also help you develop applicable, real-world job skills that look great on your resume when it comes time to apply for your dream job after graduation.
1. It Increases Cash Flow
There’s a reality to the “broke student” cliche. Unless your parents give you money for living expenses — plus a little extra fun money — you likely won’t have the extra cash for clothes, personal necessities, and social activities because these aren’t typically accounted for in financial aid packages. And this can put a serious damper on your college years.
Even if your parents give you a living allowance, they may not be able (or willing) to dip into their wallets at every request. This often leads financially inexperienced teens to rely too heavily on college credit cards, which can result in graduating with significant credit card debt on top of student loans.
But a part-time job can fund or supplement your spending money without the need to resort to plastic. Plus, earning your own money grants you some financial independence, so you won’t have to account to your parents for every dime you spend.
2. It Reduces College Debt
As of the 2020-21 school year, the average annual cost of attending an in-state public college — including tuition, fees, room, and board — is $22,180 according to the College Board. For a private school, the expense is more than double that, at an average of $50,770. Thus, it’s no wonder more than two-thirds of students take out student loans to pay for college, according to a 2019 report from the Institute for College Access and Success.
Although a part-time job — even one paying higher than minimum wage — is unlikely to cover the total cost of attendance at any four-year college or university, it can help offset some of the expense. And any preemptive dent made in student loan debt is worth the effort.
According to 2021 statistics from the credit reporting bureau Experian, the average student loan debt per borrower is $38,792. Worse, according to a 2016 study published in the Journal of Financial Counseling and Planning, most students don’t realize what they’re getting into when they take on student loans.
This includes not understanding the types of loans they’re borrowing or that interest accrues on the loans from the moment they’re distributed, with the exception of subsidized federal loans. Thus, students graduate with a higher loan balance than what they originally borrowed — without realizing that will happen. Worse, the interest is capitalized on graduation, added to the principal balance. So students start earning interest on the interest.
But the effect can be mitigated if students pay at least the interest on the loans while they’re in school, which they can do with the income from a part-time job.
On the other hand, if you put it off, high student loan debt can have consequences for the future. Research shows student loan borrowers delay getting married, starting a family, buying a home, and saving for retirement because of the toll of making those monthly payments.
Borrowing at least some student loans is likely unavoidable for most students. Because of the high costs of obtaining a college degree, Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the CEW and a co-author of the study, states that even if students work, they can’t work their way through college anymore. Thus, even most working students still have to take on student loans.
But the good news is the study found that only 14% of working students have more than $50,000 of student debt, while 22% of non-working students do.
3. It Teaches Money Management Skills
If you’ve never worked a job before, managing your own money may be new. And while there are plenty of financial guides available — both in print and online — learning to manage money is a skill. That means it requires not just study, but also practice.
It’s best to practice how to avoid money mistakes while in college rather than when you’re completely on your own after graduation. And if you take responsibility for personal and college expenses like your books, cellphone, transportation, clothes, social life, and entertainment, you will learn how to manage your money — including how to make a budget and stretch your tight dollars.
Budgeting is the practice of creating a spending plan for your income – tracking how much you bring in versus how much you pay out — and striving to keep your expenses less than your income. When you budget, you’re deciding how to spend each dollar you earn, which helps you to avoid accidentally overspending and to grow your savings. Budgets can easily be set up using one of the many online apps like Tiller or MoneyPatrol.
This will pay off hugely once you graduate and become fully responsible for covering all your expenses, including those student loan bills. Because you’ll already be a pro, managing your bills will come more naturally, even if your first post-college job doesn’t come with as high an income as you hoped for.
4. It Teaches Time Management Skills
While many students enroll in career-specific college majors to learn the hard skills required to complete certain tasks in their future careers — like coding or teaching phonics — soft skills are equally important for future employment. Soft skills include interpersonal and cognitive skills like creativity and effective communication. And according to a 2019 report from LinkedIn, 91% of job recruiters rank them as very important.
LinkedIn additionally reports that time management — along with creativity, persuasion, collaboration, and adaptability — is one of the five most in-demand soft skills. And nothing will teach you time management better than juggling a job and school. As Wendy Patrick, a behavioral expert and business ethics lecturer at San Diego State University, told CNBC, working while in school develops your ability to meet deadlines, work under pressure, and effectively structure time blocks.
With so much on your plate, if you don’t organize your time and prioritize tasks, you may end up dropping the ball. And it’s far better to learn how to manage your time while in college — when there’s less pressure and risk — than to struggle with the demanding realities of a full-time job after graduation.
5. It Puts You Ahead of the Competition
According to the 2018 CEW report on “Balancing Work and Learning,” working while in college has become a way to give new graduates an edge in the workforce. But the edge doesn’t come from working just any job.
Especially in a tight labor market, college grads need directly applicable work experience. That means that while slinging burgers at McDonald’s might teach you valuable time management skills, it won’t help you land a job in corporate finance when you’re up against candidates who have work experience in your field of study.
So, when you’re looking for the best college job for yourself, consider your future career aspirations. If, for example, your goal is to work as a web developer, a job with your college’s IT department will be a valuable addition to your resume. But working in housekeeping likely won’t be as relevant to future employers.
However, if a job in housekeeping is all you can get, that’s OK too. All work experience is valuable work experience.
Although 65% of employers prefer job candidates to have relevant experience, according to the National Association of Colleges and Employers (NACE) 2017 Job Outlook survey, more than a quarter of employers simply prefer candidates who have any work experience at all. So while applicable experience definitely gives you an edge, any work is better than none at all.
Plus, a wide diversity of jobs can provide students with transferable skills. Sometimes it’s just about how you highlight it on your resume.
6. It Boosts Future Earning Potential
Working a job while in college can also boost your future earning potential. According to a 2019 Rutgers University study of 160,000 public university students, those who worked either part-time or full-time in college scored incomes $20,000 higher on average than students who didn’t.
The study controlled for race, income, major, and other factors and concluded that — all else being equal — working while in college consistently led to greater incomes later. Furthermore, working for pay during college led to higher outcomes than even career-specific unpaid internships.
The study’s authors believe the reason for the difference is that working while in school signals to future employers that you have work experience and valuable soft skills. It also provides valuable networking opportunities that can lead to a job post-graduation.
7. It Provides Networking Opportunities
From new friends to valuable business contacts, working a job connects you with all kinds of people who can enhance your life. When you work an on-campus job, you get to meet other students, university faculty, staff, graduate students, and alumni. Off campus, you’ll make professional contacts who can help you when you graduate or throughout your future career.
Regardless, you’ll meet some amazing people. And you never know how the connections you make today can help you later. Building a network of business contacts early sets you up for success upon graduation and beyond.
8. It Can Improve Grades and Graduation Rates
Although it’s definitely true that juggling a job along with schoolwork is difficult, counterintuitively, working can actually help improve academic performance. According to a 2015 study published in Economics of Education Review, students who work are more likely to graduate. And a vast array of older studies show that students who work 10 to 20 hours per week have slightly higher grade point averages than students who don’t work.
Balancing a job with school requires a lot of discipline and structure, which may explain why working students do better in school. On the other hand, students who don’t work a job may not be as driven to manage their schedules as carefully.
Additionally, Dr. Gary Pike, Executive Director of Institutional Research and Associate Professor at Indiana University, tells CNBC that the active engagement with faculty and staff a job provides also contributes to these better learning outcomes.
There is a caveat, however: How many hours you work is key. All the research on this topic found a negative correlation with grades and graduation rates for students who worked more than 20 hours per week. Too many working hours does, in fact, make it harder to succeed at the work-school juggling act.
Unfortunately, this is one of the many reasons lower-income students often find themselves at a disadvantage, as they’re most likely to work long hours out of necessity. According to the 2018 CEW study, 59% of low-income students who worked 15 hours or more per week had a C average or lower.
Moreover, low-income working learners are less likely to graduate, even if they have good grades. That’s likely because many students who work full-time attend college part-time and may have more difficulty persisting to graduation.
So, if you end up working so many hours that you fail classes or quit your degree program altogether, working will make you worse off. But, most of the research supports that working some hours — anywhere from 10 to 20 per week — is more beneficial than not working at all.
9. It Can Be Fun
Not all college jobs will be a blast, but if you’re working in a field you enjoy and you’re with a bunch of your peers, it is possible to have a good time while you work. A job can even provide a break from nonstop study time as well as an opportunity to socialize — with the added benefit of earning money for it.
Many campus jobs, in particular, can be pretty casual work environments. Although I didn’t much enjoy the federal work-study housekeeping job I had during my sophomore year, I did love chatting with my fellow students as we vacuumed carpets. We also often hung out while listening to music in our break room, which was stocked with snacks and comfy couches.
Other working students report similar opportunities to socialize, including hanging out with co-workers at parties and other get-togethers after they closed up shop. There are definitely ways work can enhance the social experience rather than take you away from it.
There’s no question that juggling work and school is tough. And the combination of systemic inequalities and the rising costs of attending college force many students into working whether they want to or not.
And, unfortunately, research — like the CEW study — shows that students most impacted by the need to work while in school are lower-income students. They’re also the ones most likely to need to work more than 20 hours per week in jobs unrelated to their college major or future career plans.
On the other hand, if you’re able to work less than 20 hours a week — even if working is a necessity and not a choice — it might help ease the burden just a little to know working part-time comes with definite perks for college students. And the biggest benefit of a college job comes from gaining valuable work experience — whether it’s directly applicable to your future career or even transferable skills you can play up on your resume.
So take advantage of every resource you can to find the best college job for your goals and interests. While systemic income inequalities are undeniably real, sometimes it’s about knowing all your options. You can discover those by speaking with your college’s career resources department.
While higher education definitely has room for improvement, the best colleges are aware of these inequalities and have resources to help you — both while you’re in school and later when you transition to the workplace.