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Study's Sad Upshot: 'You Can't Work Your Way Through College Anymore'

More than 70 percent of college students have worked while attending college, but they're still in debt when they graduate, a new study finds.
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Working through college won't cover all of a student's education expenses. It can lighten the debt burden, though, and pay off in other ways — good news for the growing number of students who work while attending school.

A new study from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce finds that, over the past 25 years, more than 70 percent of college students have worked while attending school. And the number of working students has grown as college enrollment and tuition have increased.

While the percentage dipped slightly during and after the recession, the overall number of working students has increased over the past quarter-century, say researchers.

One reason for the increase is the changing demographics of those enrolling in college. Students over the age of 25 accounted for more than 40 percent of college enrollment growth from 2000 to 2011, according to an analysis of National Center for Education Statistics data.

"More students are nontraditional now and fewer are coming to college directly from high school," said Kim Oppelt, education and outreach manager with education technology firm Hobsons. She noted that more students are also coming from the military or may be first-generation Americans — and in both cases, are expected to help support their families financially.

The Real Reasons a College Degree Costs So Much

Students are working an average of 30 hours a week, Georgetown researchers found. About 25 percent of working students are simultaneously employed full-time and enrolled in college full-time.

Unfortunately, the additional workload won't typically generate enough income to foot the full bill at most schools. A student working full time at the federal minimum wage would earn $15,080 annually before taxes. But college costs, which have ballooned over the past few decades, often require much more than that.

For the 2014-15 academic year, the average cost of tuition, fees, room and board at a four-year public college was $18,943 for in-state students. At private universities, the average total cost was $42,419 for the year. In 1975, those bills came to just $7,938 and $16,475, respectively, according to the College Board.

"Today, almost every college student works, but you can't work your way through college anymore," said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, in a statement. "Even if you work, you have to take out loans and take on debt."

Indeed, seven in 10 college graduates in 2014 had student loans, with an average of $28,950 owed per borrower, according to the Institute for College Access and Success. Student loan balances total nearly $1.3 trillion, compared with about $370 billion a decade ago.

The good news is that while students who work are just as likely to take on debt as students who do not work, the former tend to borrow less than the latter. According to the Georgetown study, only 14 percent of working learners have more than $50,000 in student debt while 22 percent of non-working students carry comparable burdens.

You Wasted All That Money on a College Degree?

Plus, work experience is an obvious plus on your résumé, especially if it directly relates to your field of choice. For example, specialized staffing firm Robert Half Technology reports that 71 percent of chief information officers prioritize skills and experience over college degrees when hiring. "This is not to say that college is not important," said John Reed, senior executive director for Robert Half Technology. "But it does solidify the fact that aspiring technology professionals must also seek out ways to gain hands-on knowledge while they are pursuing their education."

Even if you work in an unrelated field, the experience can help you develop highly desirable professional skills. "Working while one is still in school enhances the ability to meet deadlines, work under pressure and effectively structure time blocks," said Wendy Patrick, behavioral expert and business ethics lecturer at San Diego State University. "It instills a sense of discipline, responsibility, structure — all elements that contribute to a successful life."

Students can take advantage of the resources they have at school to find the right job, said Oppelt. Student organizations are a good way to network and find opportunities on and off campus. College career centers can connect students with employers, internships and volunteer work in their fields. Many colleges also offer career development courses, seminars and networking days. And counselors can help with everything from homing in on a specific industry to match students' interests to sprucing up their résumés.

Online networking can be helpful when job hunting, too. But an in-person connection beats a virtual one. "It's great to start conversations online, but the sooner you can bring that relationship offline and have a real-life interaction the better," said Patrick.