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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