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Why I Don’t Think I Would Have Done As Well If I Had To Work My Way Through College

Darn long title, eh?

There are many schools of thought (pun!) on working one’s way through college or having parents pay for it. I’m going to share my point-of-view because I think it depends very much on the particular person.

I did not earn any money that went towards my college. I also graduated free of student loans. My tuition, room and board were paid by three people/things. First, I had scholarships which covered more than 50% of overall expenses. Second, I had a grandfather who left me a college fund. Third, I had parents who made up the difference.

I also worked my butt off in classes, at 2 jobs at a time (none freshman year, one research position for 3 years and 2 other jobs 3 semesters each), and participated in student groups (including president of a student organization for 3 semesters). I graduated summa cum laude with a 3.91 GPA.

Those are all the facts…here’s how I feel about them.

Looking back a year after graduation, I feel even more grateful to my parents and grandfather because I better understand the value and the price of that education. And I think that I did better in school because I didn’t have to worry about paying the tuition either at the time or through loans.

Frankly, I can be pretty neurotic. I think that I would have been paralyzed and worried sick about making the money. I got neurotic about my grades, but that led me to spend more time studying. If I’d been trying to work full-time and going to school part-time, for example, I probably would have focused on the working to make money for the school and not on the learning. Any combination which made work as important as school would have been bad.

Because while being smart I can be dumb like that. Even as someone who blogs about personal finance every day, I’ll admit that money scares the heck out of me. I think that’s why I started this blog.

Money scared me in college too, which is why I always spent less than I made and never tried to have a credit card. The money I did have, I was able to either spend occasionally with my friends/for crafting or give away or save. So when we got married, I think I had a net worth of something like $4000. I’d also given away well over $1000. Not bad for someone who spent all but a few hundred bucks the summer before college on a trip to Europe.

And in my own way, I did pay for over half my college education by getting the scholarships in the first place and then by keeping my GPA above 3.6 for the entire 4 years. (I’d like to add that I’m jealous of a friend who got a full ride including room and board at another school and only had to keep a 2.5 GPA. Of course, she did splendidly…but still. Dang.)

I suppose I could have also gotten loans to pay for my schooling, but my parents were vehemently opposed to the idea (scholarships, scholarships, scholarships!!!). They did not want me to graduate in debt. My mother, who became a SAHM the age of 40 (when she had her first kid, me), was particularly insistent. She said that if I ended up being a SAHM and transferring all my debt to the working husband I might feel quite guilty for not actively paying it off. She was not only debt-free when she married, but had enough for a down-payment on the house.

Plus, if I’d taken out the loans, I probably would have felt the loans looming over my head all through college, even as Micah’s loom over me now. More neurosis.

Will my kids have to pay for their own college? Well, assuming I have kids, I expect that college prices will be insanely high by the time they go. Maybe they could get a discount at whatever school(s) Micah ends up working for. But I’m going to tell them what my parents told me “We need you to get scholarships, but we’ll help.” I don’t know how much I’ll be able to help, but I want to save something so that whether or not they’re neurotic like me they’ll have a chance to focus on school.

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June 1, 2008 at 10:01 am


Kyle May 29, 2008 at 11:04 am

I did fairly well in college and also worked part time. But to be honest, I probably would have just drank more beer if I didn’t have to spend 20 hours a week at work. I certainly wouldn’t have spent it studying. I was a world-renowned slacker.

David May 29, 2008 at 11:19 am

I agree – I didn’t work either and there is no way I would have done as well…or not as well…as I did. There wouldn’t have been enough time for all the drinking and blacking out, like Kyle said. 😉

If only I had actually done well I could make this argument…

StackingPennies May 29, 2008 at 11:25 am

“And I think that I did better in school because I didn’t have to worry about paying the tuition either at the time or through loans.”
I didn’t worry about it either–I just did it! Hehe. Actually, I’m glad I wasn’t as pf aware at the time because it might have made me nervous/anxious. But at the time it didn’t. Even with scholarships that covered at least half, I worked (part time) and made up the difference with low interest federal loans, and had time/desire to study more than a lot of people. Of course I wish I didn’t have to pay $130/mo to student loans, but it isn’t a large burden in exchange for what it gave me. I may start marriage with loans, I’ll start with probably 30k+ net worth.

I agree with the overall sentiment though. If parents can help, that is always a very good thing, and I’d like to help my kids someday as much as I can. However, if parents can’t help, the student can do just as excellent. You think you would have had a neurosis or been too busy to study as much–which perhaps is true, but perhaps you would have just dealt with it and did just as great. I think that is what most people (who have to pay for part of it) do.

(sorry for the long comment. This topic frequently makes me compelled to blather on and on.)

Miranda May 29, 2008 at 1:02 pm

I had scholarships, a part-time job and small amounts of student loans to make up the difference. My parents helped a little by paying the car insurance and occasionally contributing to gas and food (though neither was as expensive).

I still managed to graduate with a 3.97 and participate in student government. And have lots of fun (road trips to California and Vegas were staples). But the student loans gave me some breathing room so I didn’t stress out too much if I lost the scholarship. And I didn’t have to worry if my schooling would deprive my parents of their retirement.

I think the key is to do what works best for you, and to do what you can handle.

MoneyEnergy May 29, 2008 at 1:15 pm

Good post, good issue to bring up.

I think that the situation you describe is definitely necessary for graduate school. At that point, you really shouldn’t be working outside the university if you can avoid it.

As for the Bachelor’s level, usually part-time jobs are a way to become active in other areas extracurricularly. It sounds like you were doing this anyway, with research positions – wouldn’t you say that counts as part-time work?

I had some very small, sporadic help from parents, but I worked 27 hours a week in a part-time job. In total, I had four part-time jobs throughout my degree.

Although tuition is nominally much less in Canada, there are also much less of the same kind of scholarships where 50% of your tuition is paid (or more) and you don’t have to pay any of it back. Typically here you get a loan, but you have to pay it all back.

A lucky few (especially if in maths and sciences, engineering) can fit into a scholarship that pays their way. But in the end I’ll have basically paid it all myself. I graduated with over $30,000 in student loans. I also moved away for university and did not live with parents.

I actually think it’s important to work during college/university unless one is going on to a professional/grad school, in which case one does need to keep one’s marks super high if possible.

Coming from me, who’s been in grad school for a while, I can appreciate the benefits of working in the “real world.”

David Carter May 29, 2008 at 1:19 pm

I am paying for my own college now and it isn’t that bad. I knew I would have to for a while so I worked a lot in high school. I see a lot of students whose parents pay for their college and they just screw around all the time. If the student has their own financial burden, they won’t want to waste the money.

I kept a 4.5 gpa in high school (ap and honors worth more than 4.0). Now I have a 3.5 in college but only b/c I have a rediculously hard major (Mech Engineering) and everyone is a genius compared to high school. I think you kept motivated b/c you knew you needed to keep that scholarship.

Sometimes I wish I hadn’t worked through high school and instead I could have joined clubs done service project etc so I could have gotten a scholarship. This way I am more financially literate though.

L@spillingbuckets May 29, 2008 at 1:24 pm

My college was taken care of the same way. Scholarships, “Grandma Money”, and parents. I also had jobs every semester after the first one, and maintained a 3.6 GPA (not quite as high as 3.9, but not too bad either ) 🙂

If I had to pay for my own college I would have gone to a MUCH cheaper school – I definitely would have done things differently.

Mrs. Nathan May 29, 2008 at 3:03 pm

Yep, same boat as you – I paid for college with some scholarship money and my parents paid the rest. I worked two jobs during college as well, but that went toward my living expenses, not toward paying tuition. I am so grateful that my parents took care of my tuition – they considered it my “dowry” and were happy to do so. Now I’m again in the same boat as you with paying off Mr. Nathan’s undergrad student loans while paying his grad school tuition out of pocket. Not fun.

SavingDiva May 29, 2008 at 3:22 pm

I also didn’t pay for any of my college…but neither did my parents. I did cover my expenses (books, clothes, etc) with paid research positions over the summer. I have to admit that if I have children I will open a 529 for them as soon as I can. I may only contribute $25/month at first, but I want to give them the sense of freedom (and freedom from money worries) that I had in college. Because as soon as they’re out…money is all that matters!

frugal zeitgeist May 29, 2008 at 3:29 pm

My parents paid for my college (private liberal arts school) and I worked on campus to pay my own living expenses and books. I’m glad I worked while I was in school. It made me an excellent time manager and it prepared me for grad school, which consisted of going to an Ivy League school while holding down three part time jobs and living with a lot of cats in exchange for cheap rent.

On a slight tangent, my parents started saving for college the week I was born and they never missed a week of setting money aside. I am very, very grateful for their foresight. Part of the reason I’m the way I am about money and personal finance is that I want to live a life that reflects the values I learned from them and that is worthy of all the planning and sacrifice they made on my behalf.

frugal zeitgeist May 29, 2008 at 3:31 pm

Oh yeah, I got scholarships, too. That took some of the burden off of my folks. Later on, fellowships comped half of my tuition in grad school, plus a small living stipend.

Pete @ May 29, 2008 at 5:01 pm

I paid most of my own way through college with scholarships, grants and student loans. My parents gave me a couple of thousand dollars to start me out, but for the most part i paid my own way. Looking back I think I appreciated it more because I had to work for it.

In a way you paid for part of your own too Mrs.Micah – through scholarships. It takes hard work to get those too!

Ryan [email protected] May 29, 2008 at 5:24 pm

I did have a scholarship as an undergrad, but I couldn’t finish in four years, so I ended up going part time for many years. I had nothing for graduate school. Every penny not covered by scholarships and such was paid by me. I think it helped me learn the value of a dollar.

Funny about Money May 29, 2008 at 9:33 pm

People who can go to school and hold down a job put me in utter awe! I had the privilege of teaching adult students at an upper-division campus in a working-class district — people would come to us after two years of community college. Many of them had kids and more than one job! And took a full-time class load. In spite of difficult circumstances, most did quite well in our courses, because they were extraordinarily motivated.

I’m absolutely certain I could never have completed even one college degree if my parents & husband had not supported me. Of course I TA’ed in graduate school and so got a tuition waiver and a pittance…but the pay would not have covered my living expenses.

Sara May 29, 2008 at 11:02 pm

I was totally paranoid about grades, too! Having my parents pay a significant part of my college costs was actually an inspiration–I didn’t want to waste their money by screwing around. Knowing my mom’s paycheck went straight to me made me very conscious of my responsibilities.

I think people who work through college are awesome, but definitely hate it when people assume that *not* working through college made me unappreciative of the experience and opportunities.

Dad May 29, 2008 at 11:30 pm

First of all, our goal was what you did, for you to get the most out of what the college had to offer. You certainly poured yourself into that. As you said, you certainly paid for your education with your grades so that you got good scholarships.

Second I don’t think there are any absolute rights and wrongs here. If you can buckle down and study, you are probably better off when you don’t have to finance your education. Some people are more motivated to study rather than party when they bear to cost. One thing recently struck me, my younger daughter spoke of being astounded at some people at her school who had to pass some pretty high standards to get in the program they were in and flunked out with a D- or below gpa probably because of partying. What a waste of their apparent ability and what a waste of the money spent on them. Loans cannot always be avoided and one shouldn’t be guilty about them but as much as possible it is better to avoid that.

One thing you might consider is something that I overlooked. Your grandfather, as you mentioned put money aside for his grandkids. I realized too late that we should have had investments meant for education of our children from when they were born or earlier. Costs exploded far more than I expected. Investments might have helped there. That is why we are so grateful for the scholarships available from the school and my company. The company program is no longer as good as it was. We are also very grateful that you qualified for them.

But thought should be given as to what kind of investments might be done in parallel with retirement savings to fund education. There are a lot of tax issues that might need to be investigated. It used to be possible to put the money in the child’s name and save on taxes. I believe the IRS and Congress have done away with that. But investigate.

Anitra May 30, 2008 at 9:38 am

I totally understand what you mean. My education was paid for mostly by my parents and scholarships (although I did have some loans, too). My parents told me that I needed to start working every summer (but didn’t really tell me what I’d need the money for). I supplemented my meager “spending money” with some in-school jobs – never more than 10 hours/week, and only things that I was interested in doing anyway (web development, teaching assistant, etc. – jobs that later helped me get my first “real” job).

After my fourth year (I wasn’t quite done yet), I had to take on all my expenses myself. I worked full-time that summer, and everything I made after paying for rent, food, and transportation went to my savings…. which I wiped out paying for just TWO classes (all I needed, thankfully). Paying for those classes myself (and working ~24 hrs/week while taking them) gave me a much higher appreciation of what my parents gave me… and made me REALLY glad I didn’t need to work during the previous four years.

My husband is pretty much the opposite – everything that wasn’t covered by need-based grant, he had to cover himself, through loans and working. He worked at least 20 hours/week all through school (and up to 80 hours during breaks)… and he failed a lot of his classes anyway; he just wasn’t taking his classwork seriously enough. He eventually turned it around, and actually had his best grades when he was taking a double course load AND working 30 hrs/week…. but that was an exception to the rule.

All of that said, I doubt we’re going to do much saving for our own children’s education; because of DH’s student loans, we really can’t afford to.

Andrew Stevens May 30, 2008 at 12:47 pm

My experience might be a bit unusual. I worked full time and went to school full time simultaneously and graduated Phi Beta Kappa and summa cum laude with a 4.0 GPA (B.S. in both mathematics and computer science).

My grades in high school had been abysmally bad (juvenile delinquency) so I had no scholarships and I didn’t want to go into debt, so working full-time it was. After a couple of years, I got a few scholarships which paid my tuition, but things were working out well so I continued to work. After four years, I graduated having made a small profit by going to school. (I do have some small student loan debts that I took out in the beginning just in case things didn’t work out, but all that money got banked. I still haven’t paid off the debt because I locked in ridiculously low interest rates. In any event, my net worth was about $22,000 after graduation compared to about $3000 before I went. Most of that didn’t come from scholarships, though.)

Note that I do not recommend such a path to anyone. I had a job which afforded me an hour or two of study time per day while I was working. I had a wife who agreed to take on all the household chores while I was doing it. I have been blessed with an extraordinary constitution (I have never taken a sick day in more than fifteen years) and an enviable reading speed (with comprehension – I’m not talking about skimming). My job allowed me to work weekends, so I had only three weekdays when I needed to both do my job and go to classes. The other four days were half-days. Even so, that schedule almost killed me. There were some weeks where I literally spent every waking hour studying, working, or going to class (though most weeks I did have time for leisure). I had absolutely no social life. There were many times when I would tell my wife, “I just can’t do this anymore.” She would smile sympathetically at my complaining and know that I’d still drag myself out of bed and to work and/or school every day and I’d be fine once my half-days started. As another negative, you’d think this would look impressive on my resume, but I didn’t find that to be true. I don’t think many people really grasp what it means, so I don’t believe it had very much impact on my initial job search (and none whatsoever since).

Still, it’s an experience and an accomplishment I’m very glad I have. To this day, my wife still regards me with a kind of awe, since she saw exactly how difficult it was, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything. My life since then has seemed almost absurdly easy, no matter how difficult things get. I was always good at time management, but that experience made me really good at it.

By all means, though, I don’t resent or look down on those people who didn’t have to work through school as long as they are appropriately grateful for their good fortune.

Frugal Babe May 30, 2008 at 4:13 pm

I didn’t work freshman year of college, but I got a job my sophomore year and gradually added hours until I was working about 35 hours a week by the time I graduated. I also took at least 22 credits for 5 out of the 8 semesters I spent in college. I had scholarships to cover my tuition, and my parents kicked in for room and board until my senior year when I said I wanted to do it on my own. I was obsessive about grades (I had a GPA of 3.98 when I graduated) and about being self-sufficient. Sounds great, except that by the time I was a senior I think I was sleeping about 3 hours a night. And drinking 2 pots of coffee a day. Perhaps that’s why I’m now obsessive about getting at least 8 hours of sleep a night and I avoid caffeine like the plague. I was proud of myself at the time, but looking back I was probably overdoing it just a tad. We’re starting a 529 plan for our son so that we can fund part of his education. We’ll expect him to get scholarships and to work aswell, but not as much as I did. I want him to sleep a bit more during college than I did.

Christine May 30, 2008 at 4:30 pm

I’ve paid for my university education through several ways:

1) Scholarship — I got one for about half my tuition in my first year. It was not renewed.

2) RESP — my parents saved about a years’ worth of tuition for me. That got used last year. Or two years ago? Sometime.

3) Government loans. I got a fairly large one* my first year (half my tuition) and a smaller one my second year. I’m in debt but I won’t have to pay anything back until six months after I graduate … and by then I’ll probably have saved enough to take care of it in one fell swoop, or nearly.

4) Government grants. These came packaged with my loans.

5) Work! I’ve worked every summer and the past two semesters I also worked part-time while studying. I was a bit apprehensive at first, but it’s been fine — and I really liked having more money coming in during term. I’ll make enough this summer to cover next year’s tuition, plus books.

*Note: when I’m throwing around terms like “half my tuition” and “next year’s tuition” remember that Canadian tuition is quite low (I pay about $5500 a year for tuition and auxiliary fees). I’m not a working wonderkid who’s pulling in $20,000 a summer!

mrsmicah May 30, 2008 at 4:36 pm

@Christine, I was pulling in maybe $2k a summer, so I can see how it would be a huge help. Add to that working during the year and I wouldn’t have needed as much.

Congrats on your socialized medicine and awesome tuition rates. I take back what I said during those pillow fights. You really do win. 😉

Alison @ This Wasn't In The Plan May 31, 2008 at 12:27 am

You bring up some good points. And reading this made me realize that I didn’t work my way through school, but rather I worked while in school. Tuition and some living expenses were covered by scholarships, and my nearly full time job during the summer covered the rest. Thus, what few hours I did work was all pretty much extra. I went to a state university, so had I gone elsewhere it would probably be a different story.

As far as taking on loans, I was fairly certain (because you never can be 100%) that soon after graduation I’d be a stay at home mom. My husband and I were married between our soph. and jr. years and we jointly decided that we’d take out some loans. So although the loans were in my name they were essentially ours since we both agreed it was a good choice. So, I was never really bothered by the fact that it was my student loan that he was working to pay off.

Andrew Stevens May 31, 2008 at 12:30 am

Christine, that tuition is low, but it’s not out of line with in-state tuition at many state universities here in the U.S. I just checked the list price (which few people actually pay) for my local state university and tuition and fees is $6300 per year. It’s quite possible to get a world-class education in the U.S. for a reasonable price.

Fabulously Broke May 31, 2008 at 2:51 pm

Lucky. No choice on my end. Parents lied to me, but in the end, I’m stronger for it especially since I look back at my Then and Now

cybele June 2, 2008 at 8:55 am

People usually rise to the occasion, in my observation, whatever the “occasion” is. My college tuition was covered through a scholarship I won and then I worked at everything from manning the college telephones to cleaning and cataloging the rare books to cutting people’s hair and typing papers and ironing shirts to tutoring my fellow students in lab. It was all fun and fine. My sister, someone you know well, won a full tuition room and board scholarship (that was the one that was up for grabs in her year, though not in mine) and I don’t think she worked at student agent jobs…and that worked well, too. I suspect that if your circumstances had been different it would have all worked out, too — just a little differently. In having all those student jobs, I learned lots of small and large skills and they’ve all been useful at one point or another. It seems to me Hegel writes about that (ask Mr. Micah) in his discussion about the master/slave relationship. 😉 Anyway…that’s another topic. Maybe for another day.

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