Working through it: The price of education


In a society founded upon the idea of education providing social mobility, higher education has turned into a normality and is pushed upon young adults as a necessity.   

Initially, higher education was offered at a lower cost as an incentive. Most young adults were heading into lower-paying, socially-beneficial roles rather than traveling an academic route. There was a need for highly-educated individuals, so they were compensated for their time.   

Factoring in war, inflation, and a societal shift that positively correlated the level of income with the level of education, the demand for higher education increased, and so did the tuition rates.   

In a study by the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), “Recognizing the Reality of Working College Students,” Laura Perna and Taylor Odle found that tuition costs have risen more quickly than family income. Additionally, financial aid granted by the federal and state governments and institutions has not proved sufficient in meeting the financial needs of students.   

“Between 2008–9 and 2017–18, average tuition and fees increased in constant dollars by 36% at public four-year institutions and 34% at public two-year institutions, while median family income rose by only 8%,” according to Perna and Odle.   

The maximum grant offered by the federal government only covered 60% of tuition and fees, and full-time, dependent students from the lowest-income families average $10,000 in unmet financial need.   

Presently, most students have few options to pay for school: they can take on loans, get a job or do both.   

The student debt crisis is baffling—in 2019, student loan debt exceeded $1.6 trillion—but there is another implication of this reality that adversely affects students: working through school.  

I can use myself as an example.   

I have worked three to four jobs at one time since 2020, after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. While I was fortunate enough to find resources that helped me pay tuition (loans and scholarships), between bills to simply survive and the need for some flexible cash, I have steadily worked multiple jobs on top of going to school full time.   

My story is not a unique one, as most students work at least one job while going to school. In 2017, the U.S. Department of Education reported that 43% of full-time and 81% of part-time students were employed while enrolled in school. Many undergraduate students work more than 20 hours per week.  

Working through school has many implications for students.  

Firstly, and arguably most importantly, working over 20 hours per week on top of going to school full-time can cause burnout in students.   

Without any time to relax or unwind or to simply act like a young adult in a free environment, some students feel trapped in a cycle of working and school that facilitates poor mental health.   

It is also difficult to advance your own career when taking time to network, go to career fairs, acquire internships or learn new skills requires a sacrifice of immediate income. There is always the consideration of opportunity cost, but sometimes a water bill trumps your 10-year plan.     

Secondly, working through school can be detrimental to the student’s performance. The student may not be able to focus solely on studies and fall behind or fail classes. The student might also have to limit the number of hours they enroll in per semester due to a work schedule.   

The harsh reality is that most students have to work through school based on financial needs, and this is often harmful to the students on some level.   

My only advice, as a current student who deals with this exact reality, is to find an outlet of some sort.   

My outlook on “adulting” is that growing up is realizing that everything is important. Your wants, your needs, your responsibilities—it all means something. You have to figure out how to prioritize and intelligently weigh the potential consequences of not fulfilling something that needs to be done.  

And let’s face it—it’ll happen. You can’t do everything.   

Finding an outlet can help mitigate the mental and physical toll this lifestyle can have on you. It allows you the space to relax and focus on something infinitely more pleasing than something that has to be done.   

Because being idle is becoming more of an impossibility, burnout is a part of life nowadays, but it can be staved off through mindful outlets that provide space to chill out for a bit.  

An online resource, Positive Psychology, lists 20 ways to avoid burnout while working,