Published September 16, 2019
Editor’s note: Nathan Daun-Barnett, associate professor of higher education administration in the Graduate School of Education, was recently asked by a media outlet for his thoughts on whether undergraduate college students should try to work while going to classes. In response, Daun-Barnett, whose areas of expertise include college access, financial aid policy and college transition, compiled this short essay.
Should undergraduates get a job?
In some ways, it is hypocritical for me to answer “no” to this question. In the fall of 1990, I began my undergraduate career as a first-generation college student who knew very little about the college experience.
I was one of 3,000 new students at the university. I was living off campus with my grandparents to reduce the cost of living. And I was a short-order cook at a local restaurant chain, working 20-30 hours per week, mostly second and third shifts.
I finished my first semester with a 2.47 GPA, I had few friends and I was not sure engineering was for me.
I had to work while in college, like many of our students today, but doing so made it difficult to engage in the opportunities we know are so critical to a student’s eventual success in college. I could not afford to live on campus, where many students develop their peer networks and study groups. I was not involved in any clubs or organizations where I could meet students with similar interests or experiences. I always felt like I was a half-step behind my peers. By the end of my first semester, I was ready to transfer to another college. Fortunately, I chose to stay and I found a path that eventually led me to the academy.
Three years ago, I was mentoring a young woman from the Bronx who faced many of the same challenges. Her family could not afford to help her with the cost of college. She was working at a fast-food Mexican restaurant near campus and in the campus dining system. She also took a federal work-study job with me, assisting high school students with the financial aid application process.
She was working full time, living on campus, and doing poorly in her classes. She relied on her counselors to put her on the “right” path, and later she realized that she had no idea what path she was on. Her GPA dropped below 2.0, she lost her financial aid eligibility and I had to fire her because of problems at the school where she was assigned.
The day I fired Joanna was the day both of us began a journey together. For me, it was to reflect on my own experience as a first-generation college student; for her, it was to find her purpose, her passion and a realistic path along which she could succeed.
I spent a good deal of time listening and providing Joanna advice from my experience. She cut her work time in half, began doing informational interviews with school counselors and applied for two on-campus positions that would prepare her to help students like her.
Three years after I fired her, Joanna was the student speaker at the African-American, Latinx American, Asian-American, and Native American (ALANA) graduation ceremony, and she was enrolling in the school counseling program with nearly full-funding to cover the cost of the degree.
It would have been naïve for me to suggest to Joanna that she should not work while in school. She had to make the same difficult choice I had to make 25 years earlier, the same choice countless thousands of other students make every year.
What we have both realized is that there are very real trade-offs for students who work, and those challenges are greater when you work more hours and you work off campus.
Neither of us graduated with the GPA we expected; both of us took more than four years to complete our degrees; and we both took several years and major changes to find the right path to allow us to make the difference we want to make.
Twenty-five years after I started my undergraduate career, I still owe on student loans – they are more a badge of honor at this point.
But they are also a reminder to me that the path to college success is not easy, and those of us who have made it, have a responsibility – perhaps even an obligation – to help other students weigh the trade-offs of working while in school so they can find a path that makes sense for them.