Making college work
In its idealized conception, college is an ivory tower where students through quiet contemplation or raucous self-discovery ready themselves for "the real world."
But as college student Korchi Yang can attest, and as 2 million college applicants awaiting their financial aid packages may soon discover, being a hardworking student these days means precisely that.
Not just the on-campus work-study variety. This is real-world work: 20 or 30 hours a week or more.
One out of every five college students works full time, 35-plus hours a week, all year long, according to the most recently released census figures. With college bills at record highs, students say it's not a choice. It's a must.
Average student debt now sits at $26,600. The cost to attend a public four-year college, with room and board, on average: $17,860 per year. Private: $40,000.
After subtracting grants and scholarships, tuition paid by students at public universities jumped 8.3 percent last year, the biggest increase on record, according to a report released last week by the State Higher Education Executive Officers association.
College bills have become so onerous for some, in fact, that last month The Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a brisk market for students selling parts of their physical selves: plasma, sperm, eggs, their bodies for medical clinical studies.
"It's fast, easy money," said Nikki Hill, a 25-year-old, full-time online student at Missouri Southern State University who previously attended the University of Kansas.
While at KU, Hill said, she sold plasma twice a week while also working at a coffee shop to pay her bills.
"College is expensive. I was making $60 a week donating my plasma," said Hill, who said she earned thousands of dollars over three years this way. "All my friends were doing it, too. I used to round everyone up and drive them all with me to the plasma center."
For the majority of students who don't go to such lengths, however, the daily working world has become the prime option.
For years, studies have found that holding a job for 10 to 15 hours a week during college can actually help students perform better in the classroom. But students today are going far beyond that limit, experts say.
Too many hours has a price all its own.
"The toll it takes on students is pretty significant," said Josh Gunn, president-elect of the American College Counseling Association and director of counseling and psychological services at Kennesaw State University. "Students are depleted, exhausted, and something has to suffer."
At Kennesaw, Gunn said, "it has been quite evident that more students than ever are carrying a full load of classes and a full-time job at the same time."
When students become too run-down to make it through even one more day of double duty, he said, they usually will choose to go to work over class to pay the bills.
Consider Yang, 23, who scrambles each week to keep her life in balance.
She attends Kansas City (Kan.) Community College, but next year she will pay much of her own way through Pittsburg State University — about $12,500 a year if she lives on campus.
Born the eighth of 10 children to immigrant Hmong parents, she is the first in her family to attend college.
Her father died, disabled, in 2010 after a stroke. Her mother, who doesn't speak English, moved to California to farm after her husband died. Yang lives with a brother in their father's home.
While taking 12 credit hours at college, she works four nights, 28 hours a week, at a Wal-Mart store from 3 to 10 p.m.
When she's done at the store on Friday nights and also Saturdays, she changes out of her blue Wal-Mart shirt and into an entirely different outfit. She puts on heels and a T-shirt or a form-fitting dress to work crowds as a model and hostess in Westport or the Power & Light District until about 2 a.m., recruiting pretty and personable young women for CQC Promotions.
The Olathe, Kan., home-based company provides models and party hostesses to companies. Yang, who is studying fashion merchandizing and wants to be a model and designer, is featured in an ad for a coming California car show.
For her, the job offers modeling credit and fun along with the $20 to $25 an hour she makes to help save for college. She uses her Wal-Mart money to pay for her car, phone, food, gas and utilities.
"When I first started going to college, it was really hard for me," Yang said of working full time and studying. "I never got any sleep at all. I had to work almost as much as I went to school just to pay for school."
It was so exhausting, she said, that she urged her two younger sisters, Pachia and Seenhiam, to do everything they could in high school to get great grades and scholarships.
"I didn't want it to be as hard for them," Yang said.
She said Pachia, 22, is now in her third year at St. Catherine University in Minnesota. Seenhiam, 20, is at the University of Central Arkansas. Both, she said, have scholarships that have saved them from her work schedule.
Working has costs in terms of time, psychology, social life and, for many, grades.
Studies have long shown that working a few hours during college improves academic performance, said Laura Perna, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and editor in 2010 of "Understanding the Working College Student."
Those studies, however, focus on "traditional students," she said.
They include students who are ages 18 to 24, who work 10 to 15 hours a week and who are enrolled full time while their parents foot most of their bills, she said. Among those students, limited work outside school helps develop skills such as time management, focus and responsibility.
In other words, students who are good workers outside college also tend to work well inside college. But there's also a problem:
"The problem is that most kids don't fit that profile any longer," Perna said.
They're working much, much more.
The work breakdown, according to the National Center for Education Statistics: 40 percent of full-time college students hold regular jobs. Among them, three out of five work at least 20 hours per week. Seven percent of full-time students work full time.
Among part-time students, 73 percent hold jobs. Of those, four out of five punch in more than 20 hours per week. Fully a third of part-time students work full time.
This is hardly to say that working during college is new.
National statistics indicate that the peak employment year for college students ages 16 to 24 was 2000, the year before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Percentages have gradually been ticking down ever since.
While 40 percent of full-time students now work regular jobs, 52 percent did so in 2000.
But interpreting the numbers is thorny, said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington.
With tuition costs and student loans mounting, the notion that fewer rather than more students would be working seems paradoxical.
"It depends on how you cut the numbers," Cooper said. "Nationally, we do have a trend of students working more hours."
For some students, finding a job may be harder now than it would have been in the past. After five years of recession, students aren't just competing with each other for work. Some are going up against their parents.
"When the economy tanks and there are no jobs, it can be hard for students to get jobs, too," said Sandy Bauer, an education policy consultant and senior fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education.
Even students with full scholarships feel the need to work to round out their college experience.
Bailey Reimer, 21, a senior at KU with a 3.99 GPA — "I got an A-minus in my first class, first semester, freshman year," she said — receives paid tuition through full scholarship.
"But as far as my living expenses, I pay those myself," she said, "for rent, and for groceries and for textbooks and stuff like that."
An American studies and linguistics major, she holds two jobs with variable hours, putting in about 16 hours a week.
For one, she works out of her dorm room, going over resumes to recruit high-achieving students around the country to accept paid fellowships at Education Pioneers. The organization, similar to Teach for America, looks to recruit talented students into leadership positions in education. Reimer held an internship with the group last summer in Boston.
Her other job is helping students at Shawnee Mission Northwest High School produce their yearbook.
"Both of these jobs are things I care about," said Reimer, who originally did both for no pay before being hired. "But I need the money, too."
Her family, she said, is not wealthy. She is the sole child raised by a single mom. Her dad died when she was 4.
Although her jobs are not for survival, she said, they enhance her overall college experience, like a semester abroad she spent in Spain and paid for herself.
"My semester abroad wasn't terribly expensive, but I wouldn't have been able to do it," she said.
Dayanne Reyes' friends think she is insane.
The 19-year-old Winnetonka High School graduate started this year as a freshman at William Jewell College. Price tag: About $40,000 a year for tuition, room and board.
The school gave her half in a scholarship. For the rest, she is taking out loans: $80,000 over four years, even though her parents offered to help her.
For Reyes, it was a matter of responsible independence.
"I'm completely aware of it," she said of the debt. "I battled with it a lot. The way I see it, there is no better investment than your education. Education will follow you no matter where you go."
Her reason for choosing Jewell is that she already had a job — in the sales department at Cerner Corp. — and wanted to keep it.
She got the job in high school as part of a Cerner program that identifies promising students from local high schools.
Now she goes to school full time, taking 16 credits. She joined a sorority, lives on campus.
Two days a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, she dresses in professional suits and skirts and works nine-hour days at Cerner. On Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, she works three hours each morning, 9 a.m. to noon, before classes.
Total: 27 hours each week.
Then she has to study.
"Last night I probably got like 30 minutes of sleep," Reyes said one day last week.
She had a two-week world politics class project due, an accounting assignment and an essay for another class.
She started studying with friends at 9 p.m. The friends nodded off about 2 a.m.
"I went to bed probably around 6 this morning," she said. "They (her friends) are like, 'I don't know how you do it. I wouldn't be able to function. You're crazy.'?"
The way Reyes sees it, the hard work is all about her future and perhaps staying with Cerner long term.
"I do recognize that it is a very hard thing to do, that it is a big time commitment," she said. "If you have the capacity to not work and your parents are providing for you, I would say concentrate on your academics."
She'll do what she has to do.
"Caffeine," she said, "is what drives me every day."