Hard at Work or Hardly Working

Building on my last blog post on whether unpaid internships are actually worth it, I want to take a step back and talk about whether working while in college is actually a good idea. This is a complicated question with no clear answer. On the one hand, studies show that students that worked a job while in college make significantly more after college than those who didn’t: “For students who earned more than $25,000 during their first year, the annual earnings bump [upon graduation] was more than $18,000, compared with a classmate who didn’t work.” This accounts for confounding factors such as income, race, major, GPA, etc. On the other, those same studies indicate that students that work in parallel to attending classes are more likely to drop out of university. So what to do? Let’s delve a little deeper into both sides of this coin to explore the pros and cons.

The low-hanging fruit of this debate is that working while in university gives you the opportunity to gain professional experience before you even graduate. This is important because companies often transition part-time staff into full-time positions upon graduation. Additionally, even if you can’t get hired by the same company, you’ll now be more marketable to other companies, who will appreciate your work experience. In today’s job market, just having good grades isn’t enough anymore. Even entry-level jobs often require 1-3 years of experience (yes, the irony isn’t lost on me; you need experience to get a job and a job to get experience). There’s also “workplace” etiquette, which our modern education system simply fails to teach us. I know I certainly would’ve appreciated a class in which we were taught basic things like how to write a semiformal email, what is a 401k, or how to tell my boss “no” because I am already swamped with work. Necessities like teamwork, communication with one’s supervisor, and argument mediation are disregarded by universities in favor of rogue memorization of facts. Getting a job will teach you these skills that schools won’t.

However, I would also like to posit that a job means more than just professional experience; it teaches you how to be an adult. In the workplace, you’re forced to learn time management, as well as how to handle money. Think of it as an acceleration lane for “the real world.” If one’s parents pay for everything, that individual will never appreciate the value of money because he/she never had to work for it. When I spend $10, I don’t see a green note, I see an hour of work. This sense of personal responsibility and ownership of one’s actions can only come with a degree of financial independence.

On the flip side, working a job might not be the best option in all cases. If you dedicate too much time to working, your academics will inevitably suffer. While this might be acceptable to a degree (as I’ve mentioned, I learned far more at work than in class), this often leads down a slippery slope. I have several friends that took full-time jobs while in college, only to have to quit when their grades slipped and they were placed on academic probation. Grades, of course, aren’t everything, but you have to set an acceptable amount of slippage and not allow anything more.

As best as I can tell, in terms of advice for parents, the best balance (if one can afford it) is to contribute enough money to the child’s education so that he never feels obligated to work, while at the same time not so much that the child doesn’t have a stimulus to work. In other words, cover the cost of his tuition, but do not give him spending money. Hard semesters happen and, if you can prevent it, your child shouldn’t have to choose between developing academically/professionally and starving. At the same time, he shouldn’t have the luxury to spend all his free time gallivanting and partying.

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