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The New Student Life: Talking With College Students With Jobs

08/28/2014 12:58 pm ET | Updated Oct 28, 2014

There's this joke I've seen online and heard repeated, and I'm not sure who came up with this, but it's something along these lines: your parents tell you, a teenager, that you have to go to college, or you'll flip burgers the rest of your life. Then, once you're looking for work and can't find a job you're qualified for, they demand to know why you think you're better than flipping burgers.

And this is a quandary that around 14 million college students face in their actual, non-joke-from-Tumblr lives. It isn't news that more and more college students are working. But why are they working?

Let's look at the numbers first. According to the US census, in 2011, 72 percent of undergraduate students worked jobs, with 20% of undergrads working full-time. The American Association of University Professors reports that the National Center for Education Statistics found that 45 percent of full-time students worked in 2007. The Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that in 1994, only about 40% of undergrads at four-year universities, and 60 percent of those at community colleges, worked or actively sought work.

And in 1984, according to a study done by the State University of New York's College at Brockport, 49 percent of all (full-time and part-time) students worked. This plethora of percentages shows a large increase in working college students. Look at the difference between 1984 and 2011 -- that's a more than 20 percent rise in students with jobs.

There are a few possibly misleading things about these statistics. Some studies differentiate between two-year and four-year schools; others group them together. When you look at the community college students, the past 20 years have seen a sizeable increase, but it is not as stark as the difference in the amount of four-year university students working.

Even if these studies vary in their reporting, it is still obvious that, however the exact amounts, more college students work now than they did 20 or 30 years ago. It's common for employers and groups to cater to working students at the current time; an organization called LearnU, for instance, provides many resources for students looking for training, with tons of ways to learn coding, among other pursuits.

It seems, though, that the majority of students aren't looking for careers, but for jobs in food service, retail, and babysitting. I spoke to a fair sampling of college students with paying jobs, to understand first-hand why my classmates are working and going to class. (Full disclosure: I'm a current college student, and I've had jobs, too. But it would be narcissistic to write an article all about me.)

Most people I talked to knew for a while before enrolling in college that they would have to work to pay for tuition; it didn't come as much of a surprise. I was curious what their personal experience with the economy and job market was. Rachel Mouser, who attends American River College in Sacramento, told me that when she was looking for a job two years ago, it was very difficult, taking her six months to get her Starbucks job, but that she thinks things have "calmed down a bit, recently." Amanda Kleinhans, a sculpture student at the University of Southern Mississippi, who wants to be a high school art teacher but works as a server at a bowling alley following the news that her family was running out of money, says that, in the South, "most business owners are from the older generations and are often stuck in old times."

An example she gave was that the owner only lets women work at the snack counter, not in the kitchen; she still believes that she's lucky to work where she does, though, and that they accept her even with her stretched ear lobes. Claire White, who attends California State University at Sacramento, said that she applied at many locations in 2011, and did so confidently, with determination. She currently works at a grocery store. Amelia Gillis, from Detroit, has worked at a pizza franchise, a Coney Island-themed restaurant, and a science museum; "it was always assumed that working and going to school were things [she] had to do."

Why do they work? Mouser's job covers "books, car payments, food, phone, basic life stuff," and she has a waiver for tuition. Mariah O'Brien, who attended Bennington College, worked for tuition and extra fees, but that it was never "nearly enough." Kleinhans works for tuition, and also clothes, safety wear, tools, and other materials she needs for art. There are also "gas, food, doctor bills, deodorant, contact solution, toilet paper, and all other needs." Gillis works for gas and savings, and to support herself in a multitude of ways. Working is an act of necessity, but part of necessity is having money for leisure, too. These students work to survive, but also to enjoy life.

These student workers have learned a lot from their experiences, and there are clear benefits. Mouser has money to support herself, which makes her feel "powerful," and she's learned to balance her life and earn good grades, all while working. Kleinhans likes having money to support herself, and the experience to "build up [her] work effort." In White's experience, having a job makes her "appreciate [herself]" because she knows she's capable of providing for herself. "Working a job in college," she told me, "also makes you more aware of the diverse talents and personalities of those who you work with," and working at the grocery store has introduced her to the "diverse demographic" of Sacramento, teaching her that she is no better or worse than anyone else.

She stressed this point, saying that, "the random kindness of people -- ordinary, strange people -- makes [her] love [her] job sometimes, not to mention that [she] work[s] with some incredibly fun, talented, goofy individuals who inspire [her] daily." O'Brien said that she appreciated having extra money, that was "[hers] and no one else's." There's something satisfying about buying things for yourself, with money you made. Gillis expressed how much her time management skills have been built, which is a theme everyone echoed.

Even though working has its good qualities, there have been definite repercussions for everyone I spoke with. Mouser said that she's really had to learn time management, and that the worst part is when she's sick and has to miss both work and school. O'Brien said that her grades didn't suffer, but that she did end up withdrawing from school. Kleinhans has been lucky enough to work for "a super awesome family who is willing to work around [her] schedule," but she has had to miss out-of-class events, such as when visiting artists give evening lectures. Gillis told me that she has often been exhausted, and will be graduating in five, not four, years. White said that her grades aren't suffering too badly, but that how busy she is does consume her life.

Some reported that some of their friends work, and some don't; the friends in community college seem to work more often though. All of Gillis' and Mouser's friends work. But the non-working friends, Kleinhans says, also say they need jobs

Everyone I spoke to had fantastic attitudes about their positions. No one felt overqualified, or like they were "better" than their jobs; actually, it's quite the opposite. Gillis told me that she believes she's "perfectly qualified" for her position. Mouser added that she doesn't feel overqualified, telling me that "not everyone has the skills and personal qualities necessary to do what we do at the 'Bux." Kleinhans responded similarly. O'Brien and Mouser both said that students who don't need to work are lucky to be able to focus on one thing.

Gillis noted that she does have some jealousy for those who don't work, but believes that "everyone should have to work in school, and everyone should have to work a service job...working teaches you respect and appreciation for what you have." White said that her knee-jerk response was to say that she "resents" her non-working classmates, which I don't think she meant with any malice; there's an honesty there, because it's easy to feel some envy toward those who can take the time to pay attention to just school.

Where does everyone see themselves in the future, though? I liked Mouser's answer: she "just want[s] to be happy." O'Brien is in the process of being certified to work as an ESL/special ed teacher. Kleinhans wants to do something "impactful." Similarly, White wants to be a teacher, an artist, and to grow to her "full potential" so she can "make a positive impact on the world." Gillis wants to be an actress, and she's learned the determination to go after that goal.

Something I really wanted to know was if they felt college prepared them for a "real working environment." Mouser said "not at all," that "no one cares what degree you have, as long as you have one." White also doesn't think college necessarily prepares you for the real working world, but that "college possesses many tools and connections which can help us, but hands-on experience is incomparable." Gillis says that school has taught her "how to figure out information" for herself, and how to think critically.

This is the most striking thing I learned from talking to the other students: everyone is aware that their current job is a stepping stone to the future. Working in food service as a college student isn't a "dead-end job;" although there's nothing wrong with "flipping burgers," there's also no hard-and-fast rule that having a job like that cements your career path. Because working experience is working experience; it builds your résumé, and teaches you how to interact with other people, how to manage your time, and how to support yourself. Yes, it would be ideal if all college students could just focus on school, and the trend of more students working is disheartening. But there is still much to learn from having a job, while learning in a classroom, too.