by Daniel L. Bennett
Full disclosure: I am a former student of Dr. Kalenkoski and she served as my primary master's thesis advisor (for which I am very thankful).
A few weeks ago, Dr. Vedder wrote a blog about new research by economists Charlene Kalenkoski and Sabrina Wulff Pabiloniaon that suggests that college students, on average, work while in school for spending money, rather than to pay tuition, and that hours worked does not hinder academic performance, but may in fact, improve it up to a certain amount. Today, this research was one of Inside Higher Ed's top stories. Dr. Kalenkoski was quoted as saying, "“We’re not saying there aren’t students who work to pay much of their tuition, we’re just saying it’s more likely they’re taking out loans to make up for whatever isn’t covered by other kinds of financial aid or parents.”
I believe that the authors of the study are on to something here that speaks of the affect that student loans are having on not only tuition (which my colleague discusses here), but on student's attitude toward work and study.
Having maintained at least a part-time job for most of my academic career, I can provide anecdotal evidence to support the author's findings. I was fortunate enough to qualify for federal grants and to have been awarded several scholarships to cover the bulk of tuition fees (attending a regional campus of Ohio University for 2 years reduced this cost substantially), so my work earnings from delivering pizza and frying chicken wings as an undergraduate, were not used to pay tuition, but rather to make a car and insurance payment, pay rent and utilities, and incidental expenses (including 'beer money'). I generally worked an average of 20-30 hours per week during the school year, while maintaining a 3.8+GPA as a "full-time student" --which effectively made a 4-year degree into 5-year one.
Lacking an abundance of free time outside of the classroom and work, I had to use my time wisely to complete projects and study for exams. Admittedly, I missed out on much of the social atmosphere that many college students enjoy for the the first several years of college because of employment. This is one of the primary reasons that I decided to study abroad my junior year and not work during my senior year of college, and instead opted to take out student loans to cover the "unmet" out-of-pocket expenses. The extra time generated from not having to work was definitely not replaced with an increase in study time, although my grades remained approximately constant and I did participate in more campus activities, including becoming a patron of the many fine Court Street establishments. It was enjoyable, but looking back, I would have been better off to have worked a part-time job to cover my expenses rather than taking on as much student debt. Hindsight is 20/20.
During my tenure as a master's student, I was fortunate enough to receive a graduate assistantship that was accompanied by full tuition funding and a stipend, in exchange for 16 hours of work for the department's graduate program director -who did not by any means allow his assistant a walk in the park. As graduate-level work is much more intensive than undergraduate, this left me with very little time for campus activities. As a somewhat older returning student, I was much less interested in this aspect of college and spent any free time with my girlfriend (soon to be wife) and/or our close group of friends -not engaging in destructive behavior might I add. The limited amount of free time, coupled with an appreciation for serious academic study that was gained from a few years in the "real world", helped me to remain focused and perform academically better than any other time in my life. And honestly, this was a much more enjoyable life experience that resulted in an abundance more of life takeaway than those last 2 years of the more social undergraduate study.
My experience supports the above author's findings that student employment does not seriously hinder academic performance (it may actually improve it) and that student earnings from employment may not necessarily be used to pay tuition. Reflecting on my own time in college, I am a strong proponent for student employment, as it builds important life skills (e.g. time management, discipline and appreciation for the opportunity to get an education) that many college students lack these days --something that is evident from employer complaints about graduates. Previous generations of college students epitomized the "starving college student" picture, and were often forced to work jobs and live a modest lifestyle in order to pursue a college education. Much of that meritorious tradition has been lost in the modern age, as many now feel entitled to not only a college education, but high marks that may be undeserved. We've allowed college to became a tool for socialization and entertainment, as opposed to a tool for lifelong learning. Easy loan policy by the government has definitely been an enabler of this shift in paradigm.