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Working a job while working on a degree

April 7, 2010

by Abbey Bull

ALBANY, NY – As the price of college tuition consistently increases, more and more students are balancing working a job with earning decent grades. Hundreds, if not thousands of twenty-somethings from the Pine Hills get jobs in the neighborhood and surrounding city in order to support themselves while they get a degree.

Some work to pay their rent, others to pay tuition. Whatever their reasons, college students take advantage of city living and the job opportunities it provides. However, sometimes balancing a busy academic schedule with an equally busy work schedule is stressful for an undergrad and can even lead to dropping out.

According to a Public Agenda report for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation released in December of 2009 entitled “With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them,” statistics revealed that among students in  four-year schools, 45% work more than 20 hours per week. Among community colleges, six in 10 work more than 20 hours.

The study also found that “the number one reason students give for leaving school is the fact that they had to work and go to school at the same time, and, despite their best efforts, the stress of both eventually took its toll.”

Rising tuition costs are also responsible for the growing numbers of students who work. Not everyone is lucky enough to have their parents pay for their education, and even some who are still must work to have spending cash. The study said that tuition has risen 400% in the past 25 years and that those who have financial help from their parents have a much higher chance of finishing their degree.

Sarah Hannah is a 22-year-old University at Albany accounting major who earns money as a legal assistant at Stockli Greene Slevin and Peters, LLP.

“I deliver and file court documents and and answer phones and when they want candy they make me go to the candy store,” she said. Hannah’s parents pay her tuition and even give her an allowance of $325 every two weeks, so working for her was a decision to get familiar with the law firm environment where she intends to one day work. She hopes to attend law school after graduation.

Hannah works around 15 hours a week at $12.25 an hour and spends it mostly on food, clothes and beer. Working constantly feels like too much for her and she said it sometimes interferes with her school work and often, her social life.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Keith Corcoran, 22, who also attends UAlbany, but for marketing and management. Corcoran is an intern at Farm Family Insurance and completes whatever projects they cannot finish within their time constraints. “I work because I support myself and have massive loans when I graduate,” he said. He is paying for his tuition entirely by himself.

While Corcoran feels his job minimally challenges his school schedule because his hours fit around it, he still puts in 20 to 24 hours a week and uses the $12 an hour he earns to pay rent and utilities at his Hamilton Street  apartment. If there is any left over,  he spends it on beer. Working and going to school constantly leaves him feeling overwhelmed.

“It sucks to have the massive loans when you graduate and on top of that have to pay for necessities while in college. It would be much easier to have parents pay for it, or have college cost much less, and I go to state school, so tuition is already less than private schools,” said Corcoran.

Some kids are lucky enough to devote all their free time to their studies and only work during the summer months and during holiday breaks. However, these college students also find themselves a little frustrated. Take Kevin Vavrika, another Albany student who lives on Hamilton. Vavrika, 22, is a double major, combining political science and sociology. He heads back home to Long Island during breaks and begins working immediately for Statewide Roofing spending anywhere from 30 to 50 hours removing and replacing roofs on public schools and state buildings.

Vavrika makes a whopping $62.50 an hour but does so in order to “save money to spend throughout the school year and to stay financially independent,” he said. Like Hannah, he plans on going to law school after graduation and needs the money to pay back a lot of student loans.

”I try not to ask my parents for money,” Vavrika said. “I take out extra student loans so I usually do not have to, but if I do run out of money … I will ask them. Last time I asked was the end of last year. They paid my last two months rent, $350 each, because I was running low on money.” Because he doesn’t work while he is in Albany, his job doesn’t hinder his studies. Sometimes though, it does feel like he never has a break. “Once I get home from school I try to start working as quickly as possible,” he said.

Advisor to communication students at The College of Saint Rose, department Chair Fred Antico sees many students who work almost full time while going to school. He said, “We all know some students choose work over schoolwork and that sometimes it affects their academic performance in a negative way.  Most students with whom I have spoken to about this readily admit that their academics can fall short.  Some feel bad about it, and a few say it’s something they simply have to adjust to.”

Antico said that when a student does poorly in school their professors and advisors tend to not promote them to more challenging or rewarding projects, such as internships. On the other hand however, Antico knows of students who work this much, play a sport, participate in student groups or community service and do very well. For these students he feels the trick is excellent time management skills. “When I ask those students about the secret to their success, the answer usually includes two things: They are good time managers; learning how to fill a daily schedule effectively with little wasted time, and they are to maintain a rigorous schedule over a long period of time,” he said.

Getting out of a job and then addressing school work is not uncommon for many employed students.

“Right now, it’s 10:45 and I just got out of work. I have a 1500 word paper due at 2:45 tomorrow that I have only just begun. Working and going to school definitely feels like too much right now, but I know that I will get through this assignment, even if it means a night without sleep, because I always have. I know that I never would have made it this far if I wasn’t so driven to succeed,” said Kayleigh Gekakis, a UAlbany English major. The 20-year-old employee of Hana Japanese Steak House works 30 hours in a week and makes $4.60 and hour but can get anywhere from $15 to $30 extra an hour in tips.

Her shift is spent waiting tables and communicating with Chinese immigrants who speak little English and ends with light cleaning duties such as polishing silverware. Gekakis said, “My parents are unable to help me financially, the financial aid I receive does not cover the costs of me living on campus. I had to live off campus because no one in my family can cosign a loan for me. Since I live off campus, I pay my rent/bills out of my pocket each month. I work so that I have enough money to pay these bills and a little left over for fun, if I have time.”

On top of her $675 a month rent, a number she feels is staggering, Gekakis pays utilities at the Madison Avenue apartment and her own car insurance. “I also spend a lot on food, gas and the credit card bills I racked up during the times I was unemployed. Last year, two of the restaurants I worked at closed. I was able to collect unemployment, but it was much less than I was accustomed to making. I wound up living off of my credit cards because it was the only way I could buy food and gas,” she said.

TAP and Stafford loans are the means Gekakis uses to pay for her college education but she knows the day will soon come when she has to pay these back. For now she deals with her busy schedule and finishing up her classes.

“It takes away a lot of my time. I have to juggle assignments around my work schedule. It is especially hard to schedule group projects around my job and hard to find time to go to my professors’ office hours,” she said.

These few students are going to be on the positive end of the Public Agenda Report. They are working hard to make ends meet, and to live on their own. They will graduate soon and push themselves further toward their life dreams. “I knew that I wanted a better life for myself and I’m working hard towards that goal,” said Gekakis.



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