Careers

Students who work actually get better grades—but there's a catch

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Al Seib/Los Angeles Times | Getty Images

Getting an on-campus job is one of the first steps students should take when they start college. It's a great way to make some extra money, build your resume — and even get better grades.

College Coach Kathy Ruby tells CNBC Make It that research suggests that students who work have better grades. "It helps [students] structure their time and is a good non-academic way to connect with people on campus," she explains.

The National Center for Education Statistics, the Journal of College Student Retention and the Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice have all published research that suggests that students can benefit from working part-time.

Kathy Ruby
Kathy Ruby

The author of one of these articles is Dr. Gary Pike, Executive Director of Institutional Research and Associate Professor at Indiana University - Purdue University Indianapolis. Pike first published research on the topic in 2009 and says that not much has changed since then.

"Most of the studies have been pretty clear and consistent in saying that working full-time is not good at all. Working part-time can be beneficial, particularly if it's on campus," says Pike.

When former Boston University student Melissa Cottrell was in school, she said that working part-time helped her become more disciplined. "The busier I am, the more focused I become," she told BU Today. "Working really makes you more structured; you have a lot of things to do in a short amount of time, so it's important to keep up with it all."

Pike notes that an on-campus job also introduces students to faculty and staff in a different setting.

"We found that it's the engagement with faculty and staff — getting advice and finding opportunities to get involved — that tends to produce positive learning outcomes in terms of grades and in terms of other measures of learning," he explains.

Researches for the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that students who worked less than 20 hours per week had an average GPA of 3.13, while nonworking students had an average GPA of 3.04.

But while working a moderate number of hours has been shown to help students perform better in the classroom, working too much has been shown to have negative effects. The BLS's research indicates that students who worked more than 20 hours a week had much lower grade point averages — 2.95 on average.

Unfortunately, this phenomenon disproportionately affects students who feel the most pressure to work. Low-income students shoulder the most responsibility when it comes to financing a college education and many students think that working more hours will help them minimize their debt.

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Juanmonino | Getty Images

The Chicago Tribune reports, "[Students] work full-time because they're afraid of taking loans, and consequently their studies suffer, they don't have time to complete an internship that would help them after college and their dropout rate is high."

The most common jobs for working students are in the food service and retail industries. These jobs can provide flexibility but pay minimum wage. If a student works full-time earning the minimum wage, they would only make $15,080 a year. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the average cost of one year of college at a public college is $16,188 and $41,970 at a private college.

While financial aid can help low-income students significantly reduce this cost, it would be impossible to finance a degree on minimum wage work alone.

It makes sense that working more than 20 hours a week could negatively impact a student's grades. When work begins becomes more than a part-time priority students can begin to lose track of their school work. And who can blame them? Being a student is a full-time job.

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