By Melissa Stefanec
A lot of students tend to shy away from having a job while college classes are in session. Some people think having a job will distract students from their studies. Some people think students can’t handle the pressures of work and classes.
I am here to advise against that wisdom.
Although this is an opinion piece, there is plenty of peer-reviewed scientific evidence that supports my advice (you can check out studies in the Journal of College Student Retention, the Journal of Human Resources, the NASPA Journal, the Journal of Labor Economics, or the National Center for Education Statistics).
I worked throughout college, and I firmly believe it benefited my GPA and overall life skills. It helped me in a number of ways, which I will share here.
Working while classes were in session forced me to be very organized. If I didn’t want to miss a class deadline or a work shift, I had to find mechanisms to keep track of my responsibilities. Fast-forward many years later and, surprise, I needed to develop those skills. Between being a full-time employee, a moonlighter and a mom to two young kids, I need organizational skills like I need air and water. Developing those skills while I was young has been integral to my current mental wellbeing.
Working in college made me practice prioritization. It made me differentiate my needs from my wants (e.g., I wanted to go to the lake and watch the sunset, but I needed to be at work to keep my job and my paycheck). Anyone who has held a “real, grown-up job” knows the importance of being able to prioritize tasks. Most employers expect a lot of their employees, and knowing how to break your day down and do it well will mean great things for your sanity, promotability and salary.
Grade point average (GPA)
When I look back at myself and my friends during college, there was definitely a trend where those of us with jobs had higher GPAs. I know it forced me to do things like manage my time and stay committed to a task — two things that work well in the professional world and the academic world.
Working gave me chance to start networking while I was in college. In fact, I am still a paid, freelance employee for the publisher of this newspaper, whom I coincidentally started working for as an intern during my college days. If you can get an entry- or college-level job in your intended field of work while you are in classes, that only makes your networking more valuable.
When you are living solely off student loans or money from your parents, finances are far more abstract than when you are living off your own paycheck. Student loans can seem like they are something else than real money. Handouts inevitably involve less prudent spending by their recipient. When you earn your own paycheck, it has a way of making you weigh and track your expenditures. It’s great practice for the road ahead.
As someone who currently reviews resumes of potential job candidates and conducts interviews of applicants, I can tell you that everyone is pleased to see a solid job history on a resume, even if those jobs aren’t necessarily in the line of work the individual is applying for. Seeing that someone held a job for a month and half each summer at college isn’t nearly as impressive as someone who held down a year-round job. Seeing that someone held a year-round job tells me that person is likely a hard worker, good at prioritizing and ready to take on challenges.
If you are taking home a paycheck while classes are in session, it stands to reason you should have to take out fewer student loans. Taking out $500 less each semester might not seem like a lot, but you have to look at the whole picture. Assuming you are in school for eight semesters, that totals $4,000. Assuming a 4.5 percent interest rate and repayment plan of 10 years, you just saved yourself $975 in interest over the repayment of the loan. Perhaps, even more impressive, not taking those extra $4,000 takes about $41 off your monthly payments. That may not sound like a lot, but many people are counting almost every dollar in their early post-college days. Private loans can add even more interest and dollars to your bottom line, so taking out fewer private loans in even more advantageous. The take-home message is, fewer loans are better, and you won’t regret taking on less debt.
Most of us are broke or almost so in college. Very few people have a bunch of money to be throwing around. However, I knew people that literally had no money when they were in college. If they wanted a snack, they only got one from the dining hall. If they wanted to buy a new shirt, they didn’t. Although I was hardly rolling in the proverbial dough in college, I had enough to treat myself to a little something every now and again. This gave me a sense of pride.
Words of caution
When reading the studies that say working during college is beneficial, one thing becomes abundantly clear: working too many hours in college is detrimental. Everyone has a different capacity, but most sources recommend students work about 15 to 20 hours per week. I was in a financial position that required me to work more than that for many of my college days, so I can say from experience working too many hours isn’t a good thing. But too much of anything isn’t a good thing, so keep to moderation in all things, even how many hours you work.
What are you waiting for?
Looking back, I have never regretted working during college. It helped me establish work ethic, life skills, study strategies and a lot of other valuable skills. It even allowed me to have a little more fun in college. After all, I had prioritized and strategized my workload well enough to leave myself actual free time, and I had a little bit of money to enjoy during that time. My current self is totally high-fiving my college self right now.