The new math: Working through college may not pay off

Low-paying jobs that stall graduation may cause lasting financial hurt


At first glance, it seems like a no-brainer: If you need more money to pay for college, get a job. But before you start flipping burgers to underwrite your degree, do the math and make sure working works for you. Factoring in potential lost salary plus tuition, every extra year spent in college could cost tens of thousands of dollars.

Weighing work and study


A lighter class load can add another year or three to the cost of your degree and decrease the chance you'll graduate at all. That delays or eliminates the higher salary you're planning to earn in your chosen career field.

"We're quite open to saying to our students when they're at orientation, 'You should take a good look at this. You might be better off taking more classes, forgoing that wage, even taking out a loan and graduating in less time,'" says Paul Dosal, vice provost for student success at the University of South Florida.

A so-called moderate college budget for 2013-14 averaged $22,826 for one year at an in-state public college and $44,750 at a private college, according to the College Board. The median annual income for young adults with bachelor's degrees is $45,000, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. So if you factor in the opportunity cost of salary you might not be making, every extra year you spend in school could cost $67,826 to $89,750.

Many four-year schools charge the same tuition whether you're taking 12, 15 or 18 credit hours, according to Complete College America, a nonprofit that works with states to increase the number of Americans with college degrees or quality career certificates. So adding on more courses, even if you have to take out loans, can put you on a fast track to graduation.

"Being a part-time student stacks the odds against you pretty high," says Blake Johnson, spokesman for Complete College America. "Only 7 percent of part-time students at two-year colleges will graduate even in double the time -- four years. At flagship, four-year universities, 34 percent of all part-time students will graduate within eight years. Being a part-time student is a dangerous proposition. You are less likely to graduate. Ever."

On the other hand, if the job that helps pay college bills also is in your future career field, it may make dollars and sense to work and gain valuable experience. You also need to consider how many additional classes you can handle and whether you're sacrificing your GPA or chance at grad school for work or a heavier course load.

Being a part-time student is a dangerous proposition. You are less likely to graduate. Ever.

-- Blake Johnson
Complete College America

Is work worth it for you?
You can crunch your own numbers and plan your coursework based on your finances, your job and career goals.

Look closely at working. There's a difference between working at a minimum wage job for the money and learning/working at an internship to gain relevant career experience and possibly money, says Reyna Gobel, author of "CliffsNotes Graduation Debt: How to Manage Student Loans and Live Your Life."

"Internships are really important and will do as much for you as classes -- you really don't want to miss out on internships," Gobel says. "With 18 credit hours a semester, you can get out of school really quickly but without having any decent work experience that will help you get a job." Back-to-school guide 2016

Back-to-School Guide 2016

Map out a path from start to degree. Even if your school doesn't offer intensive advising to help plan every semester with an eye on graduating in four years, you can make your own schedule and ensure you take required prerequisite classes on time.

"Plan out your path from matriculation to graduation to make sure you have a possibility of graduating on time," says Mark Kantrowitz, senior vice president and publisher of Edvisors Network, a collection of education websites. If you need a class to graduate and that class is offered only every other year, make sure you're able to take the class when it's offered, he says.

If you're pursuing two bachelor's degrees with a Pell grant, be careful that you don't satisfy the requirements for one degree before you finish the second one, he warns. "Once you satisfy eligibility for the first bachelor's degree, you lose eligibility for the second one," he says.

Be aware: full time is 15. Complete College America isn't alone in its push to help students graduate on time. At the federal, state and university level, those involved in higher education are providing incentives for students to graduate in four years.

  • Fewer than one-third of students at flagship campuses and fewer than one-fifth of students at nonflagship campuses graduate in four years.
  • Students taking extra courses they don't need, often because of poor planning, cost themselves $7.7 billion and cost taxpayers $11.5 billion per year.
  • College dropouts carry between $5,700 and $9,300 in student loan debt, a lasting financial burden without the salary boost that comes from earning a degree.
Source: Complete College America

Even though 12 credit hours count as full time for the purposes of loans (and, at many schools, tuition bills), it takes 15 hours of credits per semester or 30 a year (counting summer school) to graduate in four years. But only 31 percent of students at all colleges are taking 15 or more credits a semester, according to Complete College America. The other 69 percent are not enrolled in a schedule that would lead to on-time graduation even if they never changed majors, never failed a course or never took a class they didn't need.

"You can't graduate on time on 12 credits a semester," Kantrowitz says. "You need 15 credits a semester."

Blame part of misalignment on the feds. Because rules for federal grants count 12 hours as full time, many state financial aid programs have made that number the cap for support for students, according to a 2013 report from Complete College America.

"The typical pattern is they'll start off as freshmen taking about 14 hours," Dosal says. "Every year the number [of credit hours] declines. We need to keep them thinking about enrolling in the maximum number of hours."

State schools are offering incentives
Some states are stepping up to help get students out the door in four years:

  • Minnesota offers state grants that pick up costs where Pell grants leave off to help support students who want to take more than 12 credit hours per term.
  • West Virginia's community colleges offer a flat rate for 12 hours or more -- a common pricing model at four-year institutions but unusual at community colleges where many low-income students attend.
  • The University of Texas at Dallas has started a four-year tuition freeze for freshmen so students who graduate in four years can complete their degrees without worrying about tuition hikes.
  • The University of Texas at Austin set a goal to graduate 70 percent of its students within four years by 2017. It's added more instructors for so-called milestone or bottleneck courses that students need to progress toward their degrees, says spokeswoman Kimberly Atkins.

Some of these efforts are beginning to pay off:

  • Extra counseling at the University of South Florida has helped push the four-year graduation rate up from 25 percent in 2009 to 43 percent in 2013, and the six-year graduation rate from 51 percent to 63 percent. The number of part-time students (those taking fewer than 12 hours) is about 21 percent and dropping.
  • Arizona State University's eAdvisor system -- an online program that helps students find a fitting major where they can graduate on time -- is credited for the fact that 91 percent of all students are deemed to be on track in their degrees, up from just 22 percent three years prior.
  • At Georgia State University, degree maps and intensive advising have boosted grad rates by more than 20 percentage points over the last decade, according to Complete College America.

See related: A simpler way to estimate college costs?, 6 college money myths, 4 credit choices for college-bound students

Published: June 12, 2014

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