What you should know about working while you're in college
Waitressing may be the obvious choice, but it may not be the most beneficial. Source: Shutterstock

Many students choose to work while in college, but not every college student and work experience is created equal. The typical image of a working college student is a young adult in his or her early 20s, working a part-time job to cover additional expenses or interning for a future career.

The reality reveals a far more varied demographic of working learners: those working full-time, mature students juggling college and family; and low-income students where a job is not an option but a financial necessity.

While work and college have individual benefits, combining them is a different story altogether. This affects different students accordingly. It pays to know what’s in store before jumping on the first job offer that comes your way. Here’s what we can learn from the research on this matter:

1. Working less than 15 hours a week is beneficial

According to a Georgetown University study, 61 percent of those working less than 15 hours per week  maintained a B average or higher. Nearly half (47 percent) of those who worked more had a grade average of C or lower and were more likely to drop out.

Also, it’s just not possible to work your way through college anymore. Wages are lower in real terms compared to previous generations and the cost of college has skyrocketed.

“In 2015, the average annual earnings of an enrolled undergraduate working a 29-hour workweek
were US$16,000. Income levels this meager are simply not enough to pay tuition and fees at most
colleges, let alone cover housing, food, transportation, and other living expenses,” notes the report.

2. Working is more beneficial for higher-income students

The same study found that it improves students’ work ethic and aids their development of soft skills such as interpersonal, organisational or time management skills.

“It can help students build social capital as they form networks of professional mentors and other contacts who may assist them later in their careers. All of these components can enhance a student’s ability to secure a good job after graduation,” writes the report.

Poorer students, however, face the prospect of not graduating and a host of other problems, such as working too many hours – which they are more likely to do – which could negatively impact grades.

3. You should work in a field related to your college programme

Internships that pay decent wages and demand reasonable hours would be ideal. They’re great to gain firm-specific skills while enrolled and to find out whether you’re interested in the profession before committing to it later in graduate school or in permanent employment. When looking for jobs, you can leverage on the relationships built during your internship or signal to other employers you’re competent.

Take the example of nursing students. The report notes: “… instead of working in the university cafeteria, obtain a nursing internship at a local hospital. Such opportunities can enable students who are learning about new research or techniques in the classroom to apply their learning in a hospital setting, working with actual patients and medical equipment under the supervision of an experienced nurse who may also serve as a mentor or coach.”

4. The more a student works during college, the higher they’ll earn in future

Students who worked while in college gain a “sizable” premium in their post-college earnings, a Rutgers research centre study found. A student who earned more than US$25,000 during their first year of a two-year associate degree received an average annual earnings bump of more than US$18,000 compared to a classmate who didn’t work. Similar income spikes were found for working students in bachelor degrees.

“We’re not denying that completing a degree is valuable,” Daniel Douglas, senior researcher at the Education and Employment Research Center at Rutgers University and one of the study’s two authors, told Hechinger Report. “But the earnings data tells the opposite story, if you’re looking to earn more money after you complete, you should work.