College Connect: How much work is too much?

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By Sarah Boswell, Ball State University

You probably know somebody like my friend Kayla.

She’s a college senior who’s been putting herself through school while working about 25 hours per week – at various times as a restaurant server, teaching dance lessons and even wrangling kids at a daycare.

She and her boyfriend live together and share expenses. He also works part time at a supermarket meat counter. All that work hasn’t changed one fact of college life: The bills pile up fast. The boyfriend is $40,000 in debt, and Kayla isn’t sure exactly how much she owes.

“If it wasn’t for the refund checks we get to help us pay our rent for a few months ahead of time, we probably wouldn’t make it,” she said.

Work and long hours are increasingly a part of the higher-ed experience. A study from the University of Iowa’s Center for Research on Undergraduate Education reported that nearly half of full-time students work – up from just over a third in 1970. More than 80 percent of part-time students work.

“Not only are more full-time students working; an alarming percentage … are working longer hours,” the study led by Mark Salisbury said.

Ideally, students shouldn’t work more than 20 hours per week, according to Professor Laura Perna of the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education. She found that 15 percent of full-time undergrads are actually working more than 40 hours a week.

Perna was a presenter in January at a forum on the Pell Grant Program in Washington.

“Working less than 15 hours a week on campus is associated with positive outcomes,” she said. “But a notable share of students work more.”

Students start to see problems when they work more than 20 hours per week, said Haley Chitty of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

“A general rule of thumb: Some work is good,” he said. “When you go beyond part time, it affects academics and their ability to complete college.”

The key: Don’t work more than you really need to.

“You should borrow federal loans first,” Chitty said. “Unfortunately, not all eligible students are applying for loans.”

Federal loans are inexpensive. You don’t need a gold-plated credit score, and the repayment plan often isn’t as harsh as some other types of financial aid.

“Students need to think about interest and cost per month, and make sure they’re not borrowing more than they are reasonably able to pay,” Chitty said.

One no-no: Treating your loan like a credit card for stuff you don’t need.

With her student loan check freshman year, Kayla treated herself and her boyfriend to a Colts football game in Indianapolis. Three years later, she still feels a little regret.

“It was definitely worth it for the experience,” she said. “But I probably should have done something better with the money.”

Sarah Boswell is a senior journalism major at Ball State University.

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