As a student, your main goal is to do just that: be a student. Unfortunately, many people can’t afford the luxury of being just a student. With the cost of education on the rise, more and more students are needing to work for a few years before beginning college, take out loans, or find jobs that they can schedule around classes (or vice versa).

How many hours do most students work each week?

Most research indicates that working between 10 and 15 hours weekly during college is ideal if students are also enrolled full-time. For that reason, the U.S. Department of Education offers specific work-study placements to eligible students. In these positions, students are generally not allowed to work more than 10 to 15 hours a week, though a work-study award may be given in a dollar amount rather than a set number of hours.

Working only 15 hours a week isn’t always a realistic option. Some students need to take on more hours to afford higher education, so they must look to outside employers. The 2011 American Community Survey revealed that of the 19.7 million students enrolled as full-time undergraduate students, 20% worked full-time and 52% worked less-than-full-time. Of the 52% working less-than-full-time, over a quarter of them worked more than 20 hours each week. In sum, there are many students who work more than 10 to 15 hours each week to support themselves as they pursue education. If you’re planning on working while also attending school, you’re in good company.

If I need to work near full-time, how do I make sure my work schedule accommodates my classes?

If you choose to work with an off-campus employer, you need to make sure that your boss understands that you are also a student. It is unlikely to result in leniency if you come in late or fall asleep in the break room when you’re supposed to be in a meeting, but being open and honest may result in a more flexible schedule. You could offer to work evenings and weekends so that you have more time to attend classes during the day or ask to start your day early so that you can attend classes in the evening. Scheduling work around preexisting classes is tricky but doable if you're in a flexible line of work (e.g., retail, hospitality, or serving).

That said, you can also choose to schedule your classes around your job instead of the other way around. This works particularly well if you are a part-time student and can take evening classes or online classes on your own time. While it is possible to work full-time while enrolled in college, this option can result in a lot of stress both at work and at school. Choosing this path would be best if you are planning on progressing through school slowly, enrolling in only one or two classes each semester, and sticking to online or evening courses. Extending your time in school is also an easy way to avoid undue financial stress; instead of paying for all of your classes at once and facing a massive tuition bill, you can pay for classes on a per credit basis and, as a result, pay smaller amounts each semester.

If I’m currently employed by an outside employer, where do I start?

  • Talk to your current supervisor about your plans to return to school. Stay respectful and open-minded to any feedback that you receive. Your employer may be completely against you returning to school, in which case your hands are tied. But, you may find that your employer is supportive and willing to work with you on scheduling. Regardless of what type of reception you receive, take the time to decide what is best for your new schedule. Ultimately the decision is yours, and you can always quit your job in favor of education. However, your job is unlikely to wait around for you to finish your credential if you choose to do so.
  • Know that class schedules can be as flexible as you need them to be. Many brick-and-mortar schools offer both in-person and online classes and a variety of classes in the evening. If your employer needs you to work from 9:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. every day, you can schedule your classes around that. Know your limits, though. Putting in a 12-hour day between work, commuting, and class is tiring for anyone and your performance may suffer at both work and school as a result.
  • Inquire as to whether your job offers scholarships or tuition assistance programs. If you hope to stay with your current employer now and in the future, it is in your employer’s best interest to allow you to return to school. With more education, you will have the technical knowledge to move up the career ladder and engage with aspects of your job that weren’t open to you earlier. In cases like this, your company may help pay for you to return to college. Learn more about employer-sponsored financial aid here.
  • Speak with a human resources representative about the company’s policies. Some employers may allow you to take a leave of absence while you complete your program, but others will ask you to maintain a certain number of weekly hours. If you currently receive insurance or other benefits through your employer, check to make sure that these won’t suffer while you are also enrolled in a postsecondary program. Employers are not required to provide health insurance to employees who work less than full-time; if your employer will no longer cover you if you reduce your hours to return to school, you'll have to turn to other sources of health care coverage.
  • If you do not receive the response you’re looking for, consider other options. Weigh the importance of your current job against your education, what you can afford, and your future job prospects. Does maintaining your current job mean more to you than furthering your education? If you choose education, consider reaching out to prospective employers who would be willing to work with your class schedule or who would benefit your education in some way. If you are enrolled in classes on campus, look into campus employment. If you apply for federal financial aid, you may be assigned a work-study position, which will cut down on the cost of your credential. If you were considering a four-year degree but can't find the funds, think about aiming for a two-year degree or similar credential first (these programs are often cheaper per credit than four-year programs).

I’d like to work on campus. How do I make it happen?

  • If you’ve already been accepted to a college, read your financial aid letter to determine if you are eligible for a federal work-study assignment. Federal work-study allows you to work a set number of hours (generally 10 to 15) on campus or in an off-campus job related to your chosen degree. If you are eligible for work-study but were not given a job title in your financial aid letter, contact your school’s financial aid office to determine what your options may be.
  • If you are not eligible for work-study, there are other options. Campuses hire students to work in dining halls, dorms, recreational facilities, science labs, and more. As an adult, you may have work experience that can open you up to a higher paying position. Contact your school and ask about any open job opportunities for non-work-study students.
  • When you work on campus, your employer is your school. It realizes that you are a student first, and so it will work around your class schedule to fit in work hours. Don’t take advantage of this situation by taking sick days to study for tests or not showing up to work because it isn’t a “real job.” Working on campus is a privilege and a convenience that can be rescinded at any time. Treat your school as you would any other employer.

What do I do if I’m swamped with homework but have to maintain my employment?

If you choose to work while attending college, be sure to plan out time to study for your classes in advance. Realize that your studying schedule is likely to change throughout the semester, depending on when you have exams, and be ready to spend extra time studying on weekends when this happens. Your work life shouldn’t cause your academics to suffer, but it may do so if you’ve picked up too many hours. If you need to take a break and work fewer hours for a period of time, talk to your employer; it might be willing to work with you. Realize too that your social life may have to move down your list of priorities while you are working and attending school. This isn't to say that you shouldn't factor in time to relax; without downtime, your mental health and academic and work performance are likely to suffer even more. However, instead of spending Saturdays with a group of friends or using weekends to travel, you may have to prioritize studying and working.

Page last updated: 07/2017