The life of a working college student, editorial by Kajlea Richards

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RMC’s Career Services director Lisa Wallace. Photo by Roman Jones.

RMC’s Career Services director Lisa Wallace. Photo by Roman Jones.

Many believe that it is the work students do while in class that is important for their success, but often the work students are doing outside of class makes the larger impact.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, “In 2007 nearly half (45 percent) of ‘traditional’ undergraduates worked while enrolled.”

Rocky Mountain College’s director of Career Services, Lisa Wallace, has spent a total of 11 years helping college students find jobs. “In my experience,” said Wallace in an email interview, “the majority of students need to earn money.”

Many students must work in order to afford the cost of college. “I’ve met students who have worked 2 to 3 jobs and go to school full time,” Wallace said.

“The primary reason they work is for the money. Over the years I’ve bumped into a few students who have worked in certain places in order to form connections and network, but the main reason is money.”

Courtney Vagner, a fourth year student at Montana State University Billings, is enrolled as a full-time student studying special education and elementary education.

Vagner works for Lifetouch, an American based photography company.

“I’ve worked there for eight years on and off,” Vagner said in an email interview. “I started out as an office assistant, then I became a school portrait photographer. When I decided to go back to school, I only worked there as needed and I took a job in retail.”

Vagner said she works an average of 25-30 hours per week during their peak season, and an average of 15-20 hours a week during the slow season.

“Working while in school has elevated my stress level,” said Vagner, “especially because I am responsible for a lot of different things at my work, and I’m often responding to emails over the weekend when I am trying to spend time with my family and do school work.”

On top of attending school full-time and working a nearly full-time schedule, Vagner is also a single mother.

“I wish I didn’t have to work,” Vagner said, “but unfortunately, I have bills to pay and I’m a single mother, so my daughter and I rely on my income to provide us with the things we need outside of rent.”

Vagner said the need to work while in school has had an immediate effect on her studies and her ability to parent. “There have been times where I have been late to class because of work and late to work because of school,” said Vagner.

“There have also been times where I’ve had to bring my daughter to school with me when she’s been sick and can’t go to daycare because I couldn’t miss class due to attendance policies.”

Although working while going to school has added stress to Vagner’s life, Wallace argues that working while attending school can often be beneficial.

“Studies and research that has been conducted on a national basis,” said Wallace, “has shown that working 10 to 15 hours per week is beneficial to students and results in higher GPAs.”

This is due to the organization and time management skills that students learn from their busy schedules.

“I’ve certainly seen students work too much and suffer academically, but it’s not consistent,” said Wallace.

“The best advice I can give is to be realistic about how much time a student has and how they can use their time effectively,” Wallace said.

For students that might want to focus more on their schooling, but still want to work, Wallace strongly advises considering working on campus.

“Working on campus can be very beneficial,” Wallace said, “especially in that the majority of the departments who hire students are willing to be flexible about work schedules, and are understanding when midterms or finals roll around.”

Although the pay is lower at many on campus jobs, the flexibility is much greater than what a student may see at a higher paying off-campus job. This would allow for the student to make money without the sacrifice of their grades.

The American Association of University Professors also offered solutions to help working college students.

The AAUP suggests that “colleges and universities reduce students’ financial need to work by reducing the rate of tuition growth and increasing need-based grants.”

Along with this, they also recommend reconceptualizing work and the role that it plays in a students’ learning.

“One potential strategy,” said the AAUP, “is to develop connections between employment and learning by incorporating into coursework the knowledge gained through work-based experiences. Another strategy is to recognize formally the contribution of workplace experiences to student learning by awarding course credit for relevant employment experiences.”

Until some of these suggestions are acted upon, Vagner has some advice that might help the average working student. Some of these are basic tasks like color-coding a planner, eating a balanced diet, staying hydrated, and exercising to stay healthy, but her other suggestions dig right into the heart of the problem.

“Make sure you set clear boundaries with your employer about your schooling,” said Vagner.

“After all, your schooling is the door to your future and you should treat it accordingly. It’s also a HUGE investment,” she said.

Although working while in school isn’t necessarily the ideal situation, many college students need to work to make money to support themselves and pay off their student loans. Many times one just has to buckle down and get the job done.

“Just bear through the semester and get it done,” said Vagner, “even if that means sacrificing your social life.”
You can contact Wallace via email at if you have any further questions about work, school, or time management.


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