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How Students Balance Full-Time Work and School

Returning to school has its challenges. Here we explore how students balance it all.

1/07/2019 | Going Back to School | 13 minute read

Picture of Rebecca Bakken
Written By:
Rebecca Bakken

Earning a degree is one way to get on a path toward a more gratifying career. But it presents a dilemma for those who need to maintain full-time employment. A job is necessary to pay for school (and life), but school may demand some of the time you typically dedicate to work.

Balancing work and school is a common problem. Recently, in a New York Times Opinion column, grad student and writer Rainesford Stauffer detailed the challenges she’s encountered throughout her college career as someone who has always had to work for a living.

“Collegiate life became an impossible riddle. Which should I quit, the thing that would advance my personhood and career prospects or the thing that enabled me to pay for it?” wrote Stauffer.

The writer funded her undergraduate degree with a combination of student loans and work. But she was surprised when her graduate school professors weren't more understanding of her need to maintain a job, which sometimes meant missing seminars, workshops, and office hours.

“By working, am I missing opportunities to enhance my education? Undoubtedly. But the truth that gets stuck in my throat every time someone encourages me to leave my job is that my work actually enables my learning. If I hope to complete my education, I can’t ignore paying for it,” wrote Stauffer.

Loans can ease the burden of paying for college, but many are hesitant to live on borrowed money, particularly if they have dependents. Scholarships, even full rides, still leave most students with housing and other costs to bear.

A report by Georgetown University titled Learning While Earning: The New Normal illustrates the problem of college accessibility for people who can’t pay for college outright.

Study Shows Pros and Cons of Working While Attending School

Statistics show that access to higher education is further complicated for those with families or obligations outside of work and school, which often tighten financial and time constraints.

The Georgetown research indicated that a significant proportion of working students with dependents are living below the poverty line. That includes 66 percent of employed learners aged 16 to 29, and 39 percent of those aged 30 to 54.

And though those who remain employed while attending school tend to take out less in student loans, they certainly don’t graduate debt free. Among students with more than $50,000 in student debt, 22 percent did not work during college, compared to 14 percent of working learners. Still, more than 40 percent from both cohorts have student loan debt.

These statistics underscore the need for many people to maintain full-time employment while they attend school, either to help pay tuition or simply to keep themselves afloat.

The upshot is that after graduating, working learners in most fields are more likely to move into a managerial or professional position than those who only worked or attended school without a job, according to the Georgetown report.

Plus, research from the Pew Research Center shows that the earning potential of people age 24 to 34 with a bachelor’s degree has risen 13 percent since 1984, while the average income of those with master’s degrees has increased by 23 percent.

The numbers show a degree is worth it, but that doesn't negate the personal struggles and financial hardships that students often have to endure just to afford the cost of living while going to school.

Learn From Those Who Have Been Through It

Harvard Extension School’s graduate and undergraduate programs are designed for part-time, non-residential learners, so we see our fair share of people with families and careers in full swing who want to pursue their next chapter without disrupting their lives.

We asked some of them how they do it, and here’s what they had to say:

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