At the end of my junior year of college, one of my friends turned into someone I didn’t recognize – a huffing, blotchy-cheeked hostess who fell asleep on the couch and woke up four hours later to go to class.
On one day in particular, she called me, her voice sounding defeated.
“I’m failing my classes,” she let out, tears in her voice. She had been like this for weeks – an obviously changed version of the friend I knew. She no longer had time to hang out. When I did see her, she was almost always on edge or in tears. Dark circles sunk under her eyes. Her homework was half-done. Her fridge almost always empty. I knew what was making her this way.
“I told them I had a group project today and they scheduled me anyway,” she told me as she hustled to get her work uniform on. It was one of two jobs she worked. She had one on-campus job and one off-campus job. This was her off-campus job at a restaurant where she worked as a hostess making minimum wage. The job often kept her working until long after midnight. This, of course, was after she finished her classes, student meetings, and finished her leadership position at her sorority.
I told her over and over again: you’ve got to give up something. I even worried over her mental health at times, urging her to go to the counseling center. “With what time?” She would bark back.
“Your grades and health are more important,” I told her. “You’re here to be a student.” But the truth was, she couldn’t be a student without working both of her jobs. I saw the stress on her face when she opened her bills. The tears in her eyes when she knew she couldn’t go out to dinner with her friends. And ultimately, the defeat when she settled for receiving lower grades and becoming less involved in student organizations.
She had to give something up to keep her sanity. The work-school balance was more than she could handle. But the reality was, with the rising cost of tuition she needed the money.
In 1979, around the year my mom started college, you could work 182 hours (a part-time summer job) to pay for a year of college tuition. In 2013, it took 991 hours (a full-time job for half the year) to accomplish the same. A graduate student at Michigan State University named Randy Olsen found these numbers by putting together national statistics.
These numbers are huge, and make the ability to “work your way through college” nearly impossible. My friend isn’t alone – 72 percent of college students both work and go to school. Some even find other ways to make ends meet – selling plasma or searching for laundry money in their parents’ couches. Working and being in school is a lot different than it was when my parents were in college. And without scholarships or help from family, some students are forced to give up the luxuries some of their peers enjoy – studying abroad, taking more credit hours, joining the debate team, studying an extra hour for their exams.
As I was writing this, the same friend who was on the verge of a work-school breakdown months ago texted me: Sometimes I feel like I came to college, wasted money, and I’m coming out not being good at any specific thing.
She is a fuller version of herself now. Her lack of confidence only seeps in at night, when she has what she didn’t have last year: a second to breathe. I repeated a statement I’ve told her countless times: You’re one of the hardest working people I know.
A few minutes went by. I put my books in my backpack and turned off my lights. Two streets away, she still lied in her bed, staring up at the ceiling – a slightly happier version of the person she was last year, but one still shaken by her imperfect grades and the anxiety of paying her bills.
My phone buzzed: You’re right.
Being a student is hard. Working and being a student can be even harder. This week, we take a look at finding that balance, and the cost at which it comes.