Working Your Way Through College

This weekend, the Times took a look at those rare students who decided not to borrow money from their parents, and tried not to take out student loans to pay for their college education. Instead, they spend all of their free time working part-time jobs to pay their tuition:

Impressed by the pluck he had demonstrated in passing so many Advanced Placement tests, N.Y.U. guaranteed Mr. Tolmie $25,000 in merit scholarships each year, which left him with about $75,000 that he needed to earn over three years. “I had a chart on my desk so that every time I sat down I would need to look at it,” he says. “Every two weeks I needed X amount. That first year, it would have been around $600 after taxes.”

He got his lucky break when a server from Bubby’s spotted him working elsewhere and said he would probably be happier working with her. He let her boss know how eager he was. “I made it clear I wanted to work as much as possible,” he says. Waiters could earn $300 each on the weekend brunch shift, with its rapid turnover of tables and parade of mimosas.

As the new guy, he lacked the seniority to get those shifts. But he would show up for them anyway because colleagues would often bail out if a willing replacement was standing by. Then, he would work a double shift and stay until midnight. “It was kind of funny,” he says. “I was waiting tables so I could go to school, and so many times I thought, ‘If only I didn’t have to go to school, I could just work day shifts.’”

Tolmie’s work ethic is impressive (as is the Appalachian State University student who is paying for college using money he saved up while doing three tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, and his part-time job working for an electrician), but opportunities to earn good money at high-end restaurants where patrons tip very well aren’t available for most college students. Also, Tolmie admits that his waiting job affected his academic performance and his ability to make friends and have a social life, but those tradeoffs were worth it for him to graduate debt-free.

The comments from some people from older generations, like North Carolina Representative Virginia Foxx, who heads a House subcommittee on higher education and work force training, are interesting, if not misguided. Rep. Foxx says she also worked her way through college, and is bewildered by students who find themselves graduating with significant debt loads. Of course, college costs have skyrocketed since the boomers were in college, and working during college to graduate debt-free is much more difficult to do these days.

I also worked throughout undergrad—part-time at a bookstore, and then at an on-campus job, which made it easier for me to work into my class schedule—and although it knocked off a few thousand dollars off my debt, I still graduated with about $15,000 in student loans (grad school is another story). But I also made the decision to limit my part-time job hours so that I could meet other students and spend time with friends, which I thought was a crucial part of my college experience. Not everyone goes to school to make friends or network or have that campus life experience, but I’m happy I had it, even if it meant having to take out those loans.

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24 Comments / Post A Comment

WaityKatie (#1,696)

This story was so depressing to me. I’m impressed that these people have no debt, but…there’s so much more to college than just checking off your credits and running out the door with your degree. It’s sad that people have to miss out on that, or that anyone expects college kids to be able to find and keep a $1000 a week job to pay for school, rather than making scholarships more available or lowering the cost of school!

jenfizz (#100)

@WaityKatie THIS! I worked full time through my undergrad and it wasn’t until graduate school that I realized how much I’d missed out on. University life should be about far more than just coursework. It’s about developing interests, being involved in your community, developing leadership skills, developing contacts, and learning the in’s and out’s of a profession. This is one of the reason why first generation college attendees often end up in the exact same place that their parent’s are–because we value “work” over involvement because we have to but it’s not the recipe for getting ahead. It’s so hard to life oneself up out of that working class mindset.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@jenfizz Yeah, and college is the last time in life where you can really do stuff other than work. After school is finished, it’s just 30-40 years of frantically working working working. No studying or student activities or hanging out in your friends’ dorm rooms until 2 a.m. I’m a little concerned about my soon-to-be-starting-college nephew because he seems to have this whole mindset that college is a means to an end, get your degree as fast as possible and move on. For me, getting the degree at the end wasn’t even close to the best thing about college. I could have crammed in more credits and graduated a semester early, but instead I chose to stay the whole time and graduate with my friends, and even with the additional semester of debt, I don’t really regret it. I wish I had found a way to study abroad, actually, even though the cost and time commitment seemed too daunting at the time. Ahhhh I miss college.

TARDIStime (#1,633)

@WaityKatie “$1000 dollar-a-week job”
lololololololol! These people be cray! That’s what I’m getting my Bachelor for – so I can actually earn this kind of money!

Tar Heel (#3,243)

This was in the UNC student newspaper last year: http://www.dailytarheel.com/article/2012/02/working_out_the_real_cost_of_tuition

It breaks down the cost of attending Chapel Hill — not just looking at rising sticker price, but computing the cost by hour of minimum wage labor.

sea ermine (#122)

The problem with this is that you really can’t count on having a job all through college anymore. I graduated high school in 2008 and started college right away (so no gap year) and was hoping to work during college to offset tuition costs. But I didn’t realize until I got there that it was very very very hard to find a job in the area where I went to school. Basically, you were either a professor at the university or worked in the administrative side or…you were a student.

There weren’t really any other jobs unless you had work study, which I didn’t qualify for until my junior year. There were a couple restaurants in the area and one or two fast food places but I only had office/secretarial type experience from my high school jobs so I didn’t stand a chance competing against the other 20,000 students (most of whom already had restaurant or retail experience from before college) for the few jobs out there. About an hour away by bus (15 minute drive) there was a mall but most shops weren’t hiring or wanted 2 years of retail experience. I would send out a ton of application before each semester and continue applying throughout the year but never once got hired anywhere. Everyone I knew who had a job also had a car and would drive 30 minutes to an hour to work, but I couldn’t afford a car without a job, and without a car I couldn’t get any of those jobs.

I was very lucky that I had a merit scholarship that took my tuition to less than in state levels, and had government loans through the school (as opposed to private ones), and even luckier that my parents offered to pay what wasn’t covered by everything else so I only graduated with 16k in loans. And I did eventually manage to get a work study job for two semesters. But it would have been much easier if I could have worked steadily throughout school, and if I didn’t have that parental support I would have been so screwed.

sea ermine (#122)

I also think the point about how much you miss out on in college by working more than 20 hours a week. I remember always asking for more hours in the semesters I did have a job, and I did it because I had no social life during college and wanted to fill my time so I wouldn’t get bored. That’s…not super healthy, and I think if you do find friends in college it would be nice to spend some time with them. And it’s not just the social aspect, you also miss out on the ability to do internships or specialized projects, or extracurricular activities. I was involved in my schools music program and even though I was a non major it still was a huge time suck, that would not have been possible had I been working more than 15 hours a week.

TheDilettantista (#1,255)

Once again I am so grateful for Florida’s Bright Future’s Scholarship program. This all just sound so hard.

Worker Parasite (#2,292)

I don’t know, I worked pretty much full time through both of my degrees, and while I perhaps missed out on some social aspects, some of my best friends to this day are people I met while working crappy jobs while in university. Plus I didn’t have student loan debt, and graduated with a reliable, paid for vehicle, and a small amount of money saved for retirement. Likely helped that the school I went to was known as a commuter school in the suburbs though.

josefinastrummer (#1,850)

@Worker Parasite Same. I think I worked about 50 hours a week my last year of college, not to prevent debt but so I could have money for when I graduated. I still had a great social life and my grades didn’t suffer. If the jobs aren’t there, like someone said above, that’s one thing, but if you can work during college, I think you should.

loren smith (#2,300)

My experience working through my undergrad as a barista (between 18 – 35 hr/wk, depending on what year I was in – I worked less hours during my honours year) was really positive. I lived off campus, and I had an RESP to draw on for tuition and books (I’m Canadian) but I had to cover all my living expenses and rent. I had none of the true “college experience” but I don’t regret that at all, as I’m now 28 and am light years ahead of my friends in living a semblance of a decent life. My social circle was very privileged in that most of us had our tuition paid, and the huge majority of the student loan debt my friends accumulated was for study abroad, fancy residence, and shopping.

kellyography (#250)

I agree with this being super depressing/relatable. I had a work study job, a waitressing job, and an internship all three years of college where I was in a production major, and I feel like I didn’t spend as much time on my actual work as I did working. My work ethic was great, but when it came to spending time on assignments, I just rushed through them to go to work every day, instead of being able to spend time on what I ostensibly wanted to do with my life.

jr (#3,151)

I had an internship my senior year where I worked at least 30 hours a week. I didn’t use any of my money to help pay tuition, which college me loved but grown up me hates.

Lily Rowan (#70)

Rep. Foxx is a jackass. My father was able to earn his college tuition over the summer. I was not — by the time I went to college, there was not a summer job in existence that would pay enough. And that was 20+ years ago!

peanutbutterpie (#1,450)

@Lily Rowan It’s amazing, isn’t it? When my parents went to college in the early-mid 1960s they worked over the summer and made enough to pay their entire tuition and living expenses, including rent, for the coming school year.

Lily Rowan (#70)

@peanutbutterpie Totally. 60s? Possible. 90s? Not possible.

sea ermine (#122)

@Lily Rowan I remember having what was considered a really high paying summer job in college ($13 an hour, in 2010) and even though I worked 40 hours a week for that whole summer the amount I made was still less than one semesters worth of tuition. I basically used it for books and food for the next two semesters, and put the little that was left towards my tution. Which didn’t really lower my tuition it just meant I got to take out less loans that year.

@Lily Rowan Summer associates at Big Law firms usually get paid the same weekly rate as first year associates. Even they wouldn’t be able to pay for a year of tuition.

sea ermine (#122)

@seaermine Oh annnd the only way I got that super high salary of $13 an hour is because I had worked in that same organization every summer from age 16 on. And they had a pay grade system and I slowly moved up through the grades. Not everyone gets lucky to find a job that has that and most of my friends, even if they had been working at the same place all through high school, never made more than minimum wage.

oiseau (#1,830)

I worked 15-20 hours/week for two years of college. I had a full scholarship for classes but had to earn money for my living expenses (rent, utilities, food, gas). I hated my retail job with the power of a thousand suns but the pay was pretty ok and I managed to save up ~$2000. I quit after 2 years and spent the final year of college (got my BA in 3 yrs) working an unpaid internship and doing volunteer work with a nonprofit I liked. The part-time job was dumb and I often wished I had a family that could support me so I could get the fancy internships that would result in a better job later on. I think it didn’t occur to me to keep applying for other part-time jobs I would have liked better – I just put my head down and trudged through two horrible years at the mall.

@oiseau Yeah, that was basically my situation – tuition scholarship, working 20 hours a week for living costs and full time most holidays.

I like to blame my need to support myself and work lots for my lack of social life at university, but really, I am a loner at heart and I was a bit of a sore thumb (non rich nerdy Asian chick amongst all the well off, private school blondies who dominated Communications). I did make a few friends, but I mostly found them in my last year among the journalism majors when our academic focus narrowed. I was also in a long term relationship and lived in the burbs rather than in the CBD.

Overall, I don’t really have any regrets. I’m not sure I would have been *much* happier had I worked less and tried to have more fun.

(But I’m middle aged at heart and value financial stability A LOT.)

TARDIStime (#1,633)

I asked my bosses at my current full-time job if I could scale back my hours now that I’m going to start studying.
I sent them my timetable and they said “sure”! I will be working 29 hours a week, every week, on salary this semester (things will be revised every semester).
I feel so, so lucky because of this and the fact that I get a FEE-HELP loan from the govt that is very low interest (admittedly they charge 20% of the full cost of tuition as a one-time fee, but if you pay for more than $500 of your tuition up front, you get a 10% discount off that $500 or more). I also only have to pay them back when I earn over a certain liveable threshold of wages (~$50,000/year).
In short, these student loans will not kill me, nor even stress me out, really.

WaityKatie (#1,696)

@TARDIStime Wait, whaaaat is this charging 20 percent of the loan as a fee?? The government should not be doing this?!?

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