Should I get a part-time job in college?
Short answer? Yes.
But that wasn't very interesting, now was it? So let's weigh the options for working while in school to get a better understanding of why you should consider it.
Working as a Way to Pay for School
There are lots of stories about people working their way through school. Unfortunately, it is becoming less common in some quarters, but perhaps the biggest reason to work your way through school is that tuition has been rising faster than inflation for decades and every dollar that you earn saves you from student loan debt — some of it, anyway.
One thing to be careful of, however, is balancing the number of hours you work against your academic obligations. Some people may be able to work lots of hours and maintain a 4.0 grade point average (GPA). Maybe they thrive on being busy, have a less challenging major (or a major that comes easily to them), or they simply lucked out and found an easy job. Others may find that working too many hours causes their grades to plummet. The balance will be different for everyone.
Grade point average is an imperfect measure of ability, to be sure. However, every merit scholarship or grant that you qualify for also reduces the student loans you may need. And GPA can have long-term impacts for people who end up wanting to pursue additional education to reinvent their careers. How? Most universities won't admit individuals into graduate programs unless they have at least a 3.0 GPA. In other words, being a C-student undergrad can significantly limit your options later on.
Fortunately, there's a lot of different types of jobs available to you as a college student that you can pursue without sacrificing your academics. Indeed, as you'll see below, the right part-time job can help you get the most out of your college experience!
Federal Work-Study: Financial Aid and Employment All in One
If you have filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you may recall a question asking you to indicate whether or not you are interested in federal work-study. I never checked that box, and it's something I'll always regret! Undergraduate, graduate, and professional students may be eligible for this program. The benefits of work-study are numerous:
Your employer is required to accommodate your class schedule
Since you will likely be working on campus, you'll probably get holidays and school breaks off automatically
The program encourages students to work in positions related to their course of study
It is important to note that this is financial aid, typically awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. So if you are eligible, then it is important to fill out the FAFSA as soon as you are able. I have known several individuals who were student workers for academic departments as undergrads who were hired for full-time employment by those departments after they graduated.
Paid Internships: Another Great Option
I recently attended an appreciation luncheon hosted by the career services office at the university where I work. I learned that many companies not only offer paid internships, they offer those internships as part of transition programs for students approaching graduation. In other words, they only offer as many internships per year as they anticipate being able to convert into full-time jobs. While obviously not every intern ends up with a full-time job at the company, many of them do.
And why not? The companies presenting at the lunch said that the time they invested into training interns was recouped many times over because they ended up hiring employees who were already at least partially trained, familiar with the corporate culture, and dedicated to the company's mission. Many such programs run full time during the summer months rather than part time during the academic year, though both kinds of opportunities exist.
The summer after my freshman year, I scored a 12-week, full-time, paid internship at my hometown's daily newspaper. It was a great experience! Like many interns, I was rotated through the different divisions and given a variety of responsibilities so that I ended up with a better understanding of the opportunities available. That gave me a sense of the organization's structure and clarified my strengths and weaknesses. I left with a solid network of colleagues at the newspaper as well.
Other Campus Jobs Related to Your Major
There may be additional opportunities related to your major besides work-study and internships. As an English major, I was a natural fit for the job at the writing center where I began to work during my junior year; but there are loads of other opportunities to work for university entities on a non-work-study basis, such as:
Fitness centers (say, as a personal trainer or group-exercise instructor)
Teaching or research assistantships (These are primarily for graduate students, though sometimes opportunities exist at the undergraduate level too.)
If there is an office or resource on campus that you have found to be valuable, it doesn't hurt to investigate whether there are employment opportunities for students there or not.
Traditional Part-Time Jobs
Of course, when most of us think of part-time jobs, we are thinking of the more obvious retail or food service jobs, or maybe something like lifeguarding during the summer. There are pros and cons to these types of positions. For example, it might be easier to pick up extra shifts because businesses are not bound by federal work-study budgets or the FAFSA. Businesses also hire all year long instead of just by the academic calendar, meaning you can look for a new job any time as your situation changes. Depending on factors like commission or tips, you may also be able to earn more money in these types of positions.
However, there are some downsides to consider as well. It can be challenging to schedule work around your classes, especially since your school schedule probably changes every semester. Holiday breaks tend to be the busiest times of year for retailers and restaurants, and it may be hard to get time off if you want to go home to visit family during those times. These environments may encourage spending too. My food spending was out of control when I was a server; and if you work in retail at a store you love, that employee discount may be too tempting to resist. I know plenty of people who got into trouble that way!
A Plethora of Options
Whatever route ends up working best for you, one thing is clear: Numerous options exist when it comes to working part-time jobs in college. As with so many things, the key is to be deliberate as you evaluate the alternatives. Choosing a job because that's where your friend works, because it's closest to your house, or because it's the same job you've had since high school may be easier. However, with a little thought and effort, your college job could pay off for years to come.
Did you work part time in college? Share your experiences in the comments below!