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Why working your way through college isn't always the best idea

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Ryan Fritz never questioned whether he would need to work his way through college. The Texas native set his eyes on an engineering program at the University of Oklahoma, where tuition and fees for nonresidents tops $23,000 per year. His family was denied any financial aid other than federal student loans. Like an estimated 62% of college students today, Fritz started working part-time and over the summer to help take the edge off his college costs.

“I have [tried to] reduce the amount that I need to borrow, but it never seems to make a big enough dent,” says Fritz, 22, who spent last summer interning with General Electric. When he graduates in May 2016, he will have $150,000 in student loans waiting for him.  

Working college students like Fritz are not a new phenomenon. What’s different about today’s working students is that the idea of “working your way through school” is magical thinking. A student working full-time at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would earn $15,080 annually — hardly enough to cover the $18,943 the average four-year public institution charges for yearly tuition, fees and room and board.

“The distinction between working and learning when you’re young is disappearing,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

In a report released Wednesday, Carnevale found that roughly 40% of undergraduates and 76% of graduate students work at least 30 hours a week, enough to be considered full-time by the IRS. About 25% of all working learners are simultaneously enrolled in college full-time and about 20% have children.

When broken down into two age groups – 16- to 29-year-olds and 30- to 54-year-olds — the differences are stark.

Younger students, which make up two-thirds of all working learners, are mostly likely to be white women enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs and work in food service or personal service jobs (tending bar, waitressing, etc.). About 40% work full-time.

Older working students are also largely female but are much more likely to be African-American, enrolled in a certificate or Associate’s degree program, work in managerial roles, and have children. More than three-quarters of this group work full-time while in school. This group is more likely to begin working straight after high school and go back to college to boost their career prospects, Georgetown found.

The long-term effects of juggling work and college impact these two groups differently. When low-income, older working students have to balance work and school, they become more likely to drop out. This explains why community colleges struggle to improve completion rates for students, who are typically older, low-income minorities. Georgetown attributes this trend to “lack of counseling, social capital, and other supports that are typically associated with a higher socioeconomic status or more selective colleges.”

“We’ve come to a point where you’ve got to have a degree to get a job, but families can’t afford tuition so that means more work, more student loans,” Carnevale says. “It becomes this long struggle for everybody.”

The pros of working in college

The prognosis for working learners isn’t all bad — especially if they are strategic about the types of jobs they pursue. 

Less debt. Working students graduate with less student loan debt, for starters. Twenty-two percent of students who do not work while in college have more than $50,000 in student debt, according to the study, compared to 14% percent of working students.

Source: Georgetown Center on Education & the Workforce
Source: Georgetown Center on Education & the Workforce

Better job prospects. Finding work in a field closely tied to your major can give students a boost when they are ready to enter the job market. The starting annual salary for college graduates who completed a paid internship while in school was $52,000, compared with $36,000 for those who did an unpaid internship and $37,000 for those who did no internship, according to the study. Paid interns are much more likely to get job offers after school — 63% vs. 37% of unpaid interns and 35% of students without internships.

Fritz is banking on this trend to ring true when he graduates in May. He completed a paid internship with General Electric this summer and says he expects to be offered a full-time job with the company after graduation.

In most occupations, Georgetown found working learners were more likely to move into managerial and professional occupations than people who began working straight out of high school or did not work while in college.

The key: picking a job that fits your major

A job closely related to a field of study is crucial for graduate students, who are likely to already be studying a field they intend to work in after graduation.

But it’s more difficult to expect all undergraduates (who, let’s be honest, may not know exactly what kind of work they want to do after college) to pick jobs that tie directly to their major. Students studying STEM-related fields, health care and education are much more likely to find work in their field while in school.

“You don’t want a system where young people decide what they want to do when they’re a freshman in high school or college,” says Carnevale. “But [this study] argues for having much more real world experience because it will help you figure it out sooner.”

Colleges can help by partnering with employers to create internship or training programs for students in specific majors. These relationships are prevalent at four-year institutions already but there’s always room for more, Carnevale says. Starbucks made headlines last year when it launched its College Achievement Plan, paying 100% tuition for any employee to get a bachelor’s degree through Arizona State University’s online distance learning program. So far, 1,800 workers have enrolled and the company aims to graduate 25,000 by 2025.

Even with a $150,000 in student loans waiting for him on the other side of graduation, Fritz says he’s happy with his choices. The starting salary for engineers in 2015 was more than $62,000, beating out other high-earning majors like computer science, math and business.

“Student loans are worth it in my opinion,” he says. “I just hate how much they will cost me in the long run.”

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Mandi Woodruff is a reporter for Yahoo Finance and host of Brown Ambition, a weekly podcast about career and finance. Follow her on Tumblr or Facebook