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College vs. Paycheck: Working students can’t always choose between a job and an education. Universities shouldn’t make them.

Dear Commons Community,

Rainesford Stauffer, a full-time graduate student who works over 40 hours per week, has an op-ed in today’s New York Times.  She makes a plea to colleges especially faculty to recognize the difficulty of balancing her time between her job and education.  Her story is well-known here at City University of New York and many other colleges with large commuter student populations.  Here is an excerpt:

“Much of the debate around higher-education inequity focuses on lessening the cost of tuition. Great, but the burden on working students is often left out of that conversation. We need affordable tuition, but also need to acknowledge other life expenses that are just as essential to learning.

Instead of penalizing working students like me for not being able to participate in every activity, why don’t universities seek additional ways to make higher education reachable for an increasingly diverse population of students? Not only are more students working than ever before, but nearly 40 percent of college students are over the age of 25. Nearly 60 percent of working learners are women. A quarter of working learners between ages 30 and 54 are African-American. And we’re not just working to cover costs in the short term: Working learners are upwardly mobile and more likely to move into managerial positions after graduating. Aren’t those the kind of career outcomes universities want to cultivate in their students?

When I got to graduate school, I assumed there would be more sympathy for an adult life that balanced academia and work. Yet in my first week of journalism school last fall, a professor told me I should quit my job. That breezy solution is incongruent with the realities facing the 76 percent of graduate students who log at least 30 hours of work per week.

The double life of a working grad student is filled with guilt. Guilt that I am constantly ducking out of extracurricular benefits like seminars, workshops and office hours to get to my next shift. Guilt that I need to complete a paid assignment on time before I can focus on my thesis. Guilt that I’m not making the most of the chance to continue my education by being unable to devote myself to it entirely.

By working, am I missing opportunities to enhance my education? Undoubtedly. But the truth that gets stuck in my throat every time someone encourages me to leave my job is that my work actually enables my learning. If I hope to complete my education, I can’t ignore paying for it.

There are benefits of bouncing like an academic Ping-Pong ball from class to work. The jobs I’ve worked can be passed off as résumé-building and provide me with real workplace experience that school itself can’t. Yet it’s unacceptable and frankly infuriating that a country with universities bragging about water parks and movie theaters also has students struggling with food insecurity, or that universities that want to tout employment as a byproduct of a degree would not support working students.

It isn’t working students who need to reprioritize education over employment. It’s the universities that should prioritize affordability on campus by creating opportunities for students to work while staying invested in their education.”

Ms. Stauffer comments are well-stated.  We in higher education need to think carefullly how we use precious resources.  Faculty especially need to be sensitive to working students many of whom are parents taking care of children who also need time and attention.  

Tony

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