“To work or not to work?” That's a question many families and college students ask themselves before the start of each term.
The answers may vary for a student from year to year or even term to term, but knowing the what, how and why of working in college can help students and their families make good choices.
Working in college is common.
According to a 2015 Georgetown University study, between 70 and 80% of college students have balanced the challenge of course work and a job. Some of those are campus jobs, where students who qualify for federal work-study (as part of their financial aid package) can apply for positions where they work 10–20 hours a week, usually for minimum wage. (Typically a variety of on-campus jobs are available to non-work-study students, too.) Other students find employment in the local community, often in the service industry, or are hired informally to work as tutors, babysitters, or doing odd jobs.
Using work in college to develop professional skills
Working while in college, even if it is a part-time position, can provide your student with an opportunity to practice “soft skills” that can help them land a job after graduation. According to US News & World Report, the five soft skills that students can sharpen include managing their time, speaking and writing clearly, solving problems, and working well with others.
Other skills that can be learned in a job that can benefit your student in the long run include creativity, customer service and multitasking. If your student works during college, remind them to record their tasks and responsibilities on their resumé.
Can your student benefit from working while in college?
Yes! Despite the impact on an already-busy schedule, many students are able to manage a part-time job and college courses successfully. Here are just a few of the numerous benefits to holding a part-time job in college:
Money to help pay bills
Improved time management skills
Motivation to finish a degree
Soft skills that can help them get a job after graduation
Students report that they feel like an adult, and having a job helps them appreciate both earning and spending money. It also teaches them how to budget.
However, there can be drawbacks to working in college. If students work long hours while taking a full load of classes, they may struggle to manage their time and energy which can result in stress, and poor performance both at both work and school. It’s recommended that students work no more than 15–20 hours per week, and if they have a heavy academic load in any given term, they should cut back their work hours.
Have a family conversation.
When considering whether your student will work during the school year, even for just a few hours a week, talk through the following questions as a family:
How much time and effort will they need to put into their current courses? A heavy load of science courses, for example, or several group projects during the term may mean they need extra flexibility in their work.
How many hours a week are ideal and how much money does your student want to make each term? The answers to both of these questions can help your student make a realistic plan to work and attend classes.
Is the job a necessity to afford college or just desirable? If the job is a necessity, then discuss expectations for both succeeding in courses and on the job. For instance, can your student pick up extra hours during breaks from school to make up for fewer hours during the term?
Does the job need to be steady, with steady pay, or can it be flexible? If there is some flexibility about how much your student works, then they can put their courses first when school is in session and work more when they have the time.
Are there any times of day, days of the week, or times of the year that are non-negotiable? Think about the crush of finals week or the busy-ness of the beginning of the term as potential times that your student’s focus needs to be on college.
Does your student have the time management skills to balance work and their courses? In some cases, your student may not know the answer until they try to balance both. Help them develop key time management strategies to navigate the busiest of times.
Can your student ask for time off or to work more or fewer hours? Coach your student on how to ask for time off and to negotiate other needs. Some employers work well with college students; others are not so compassionate. Your student will benefit from knowing how to communicate with both types.
How can you support your student?
Clearly communicate your expectations. Tell them what you expect. If they feel overwhelmed and need to talk to someone, let them know you will always listen with an open mind.
Consider your student’s needs. Each student and each school year or term is unique. Your student may have been able to handle a 20-hour-a-week job their first term but not their second.
Check in regularly with your student. After the first week, first month, mid-term, and a few weeks before finals are good times to see if they are handling all of their work well.
Coach your student to navigate challenges. Help your student communicate what they need to the appropriate people. If they need to talk to their boss, encourage them to ask for time to do that. If they need to seek help on campus, suggest they find the appropriate office and ask for assistance.
When full-time work and full-time college don’t mix
Week after week of work and college can wreak havoc on a student’s mental and physical health. If your student has difficulty balancing both well, consider cutting back on work hours or course hours.
 Holmes, B. (2014, May 12). Hone the top 5 soft skills every college student needs. US News & World Report. Retrieved from https://www.usnews.com/education/blogs/college-admissions-playbook/2014/05/12/hone-the-top-5-soft-skills-every-college-student-needs.
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Amy Baldwin, Ed.D. is the Director of Student Transitions at the University of Central Arkansas and co-author of a number of books, including A High School Parent's Guide to College Success: 12 Essentials and The College Experience. Amy and her husband are parents of two college students.