Can school always be a full-time job?


Quentin Blais

A student works on their homework while working a front desk job at the Division of Student Affairs in the Loop campus.

College students value many things, whether it is grades, money or time; however, for employed students, all are important, but none are guaranteed.

Working while enrolled in college places restrictions on students across the country, and the rising cost of tuition is leading to more employed students.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, 40% of all full-time (12+ credit hours) undergraduate students were actively employed in 2020. Additionally, according to the American Association of University Women (AAUW), the cost of a college education has risen by 103% since 1987.

Even with a sincere commitment to education, working students’ financial and time resources remain limited.

“The students I have worked with who work full-time and part-time are some of my most motivated, hard-working, committed students,” said DePaul clinical economics professor Thomas Walker. 

President Joe Biden’s recent student loan forgiveness proposal helps reduce students’ need to work, but it does not address the fundamental issue of how expensive college can be. 

As per the Urban Institute, 30 to 40% of undergraduate students take out loans each year. 70% of bachelor’s degree recipients will have some form of educational debt by the time they graduate.

So, what can students do to stay in the classroom without breaking the bank? The standard response is federal financial assistance.

“We use the results of the FAFSA to determine a student’s eligibility,” said assistant VP of DePaul Financial Aid Karen LeVeque-Szawara. “Some factors that may influence the results include family size, number of family members in college, and student and family income.”

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) determines how much federal financial aid a student receives, but it is not a complete solution. Without always weighing economic factors properly, some students can be left out in the cold. 

“We encourage students to appeal if their circumstances have changed or the results of the FAFSA do not accurately reflect a student/family’s current financial circumstances that may impede their ability to pay,” LeVeque-Szawara said.

In the Department of Education’s online FAFSA explanation, there is a sub-section titled “What is included in the cost of college?” There are traditional expenses: tuition, room and board, school supplies, and so on. Additionally, they include suggestions on how to get the colleges themselves to reduce tuition for personal reasons, such as being an older student, bring your family’s main wage earner.

Also included is a bullet point that simply reads: “You can work part-time to pay part of your costs. Be sure your work and school schedules don’t conflict and that you have enough time for studying,” followed by suggestions for obtaining employment. 

Summing it up, outside of tips to pursue reduced tuition and short bullet points on finding a job, federal financial aid provides little additional leeway for working students.

“Other than housing – I live with my grandfather – I pay for everything,” DePaul junior Yazen

A student works on their homework while working a front desk job at the Division of Student Affairs in the Loop campus. (Quentin Blais)

Barakat said. “School is the biggest factor. Since I’ve been working since I got out of high school, financial aid has finally caught up with me and they don’t give me much money. School is really the reason I’m working so many hours.”

Beyond scraping together the funds to pay for courses, balancing classwork can be another trial for working students. Paraphrasing the Department of Education’s definition of a credit hour, students are expected to have at least one hour of in-class study each week and at least two hours outside of the classroom for each credit hour taken.

A “full-time” student at DePaul, for example, needs a minimum of 12 credit-hours to qualify as full-time. Using the DOE’s definition, that student is expected to spend 12 hours in class – alongside 24 outside of it – on their studies.

Now, while the validity of those expectations, particularly outside of class, is debatable, those 24 hours outside of class could amount to an unaffordable amount of lost income for working students.

As countless students have demonstrated, however, the high-wire act of work and school can be completed, and it doesn’t have to be alone. 

“I want to see all my students succeed, even when it’s difficult and demanding to get to that finish line,” Walker said. 

At DePaul specifically, for example, the Dean of Students office offers an emergency fund available for students facing non-tuition related crises. If those crises threaten a student’s ability to finish their studies, they may be eligible to receive a portion by applying.

“Not all of those [who apply] will necessarily get approved, but that might be how many students we connect with on the funding,” Assistant Dean of Students Dan Amato said. “If a student is not approved, that does not mean we do not help them, but we are often able to try and help in other ways depending on the situation.”

Some students must work, not despite their education, but for the sake of it. It is commonly said that school is a full-time job. When a student needs to manage another, it comes down to the university and that student to make a college education possible.

“Instructors are people too,” Walker said. “We understand that life gets in the way sometimes, so always stay in communication.”