Working on the naivete of freshmen

May 25, 1999|By Susan Reimer

A SURVEY of high school students planning to attend college found that 60 percent of them plan to work during freshman year. Though most said that they expect to work about 15 hours a week, some plan to work as many as 30 hours a week.

And, according to a report from the Art & Science Group in Baltimore, publisher of the newsletter StudentPOLL, the majority of students said the decision to work was completely their own or made with the support of their parents.

"Right away, your first question has to be, `How are these kids going to manage the work load?' " says Richard Hesel, a partner in Art & Science, which helps colleges and universities learn what prospective students and their parents are thinking. About half the students said they wanted to work to get career experience and the other half said they needed to work to help pay for college expenses. These responses, Hesel says, reflect the naivete of the students and, by implication, their parents.

Neither parents nor students appear to understand that most students will be able to find only minimum-wage junk jobs that will give them no career experience and make nary a dent in tuition bills that have been growing exponentially over the last decade.

"Things are seriously out of whack here," says Hesel.

Hesel, the father of a college student himself, says the motiva- tional questions on the survey showed that the students were not just lifestyle junkies who wanted to work to support a car or a clothes habit.

"They are sensitive to the demands on their family of college," Hesel says. "It is clear they want to do their part. There is no evidence that they are lazy. And there was no evidence of resentment. I take heart in that.

"But they are very naive."

The more hours a college student works, the more likely his academic performance will suffer. And students who work are also more likely to drop out.

"The consequences of these findings are potentially very troubling," says Hesel.

But they reflect the times.

College tuitions have just about doubled in the last 10 years, while household income for families of children of college age have gone up less than 1 percent.

Meanwhile, government grants, aid, work-study programs and government loans have dropped, both in real dollars and as a percentage of tuition costs.

The difference is being made up by loans to parents and to students, many with interest rates that are not subsidized or delayed. College students are leaving their undergraduate years burdened with an average tuition debt of $11,400. These students report that loan payments consume 12 percent of their monthly income. And increasing numbers of students report that they postponed buying a home, buying a car, having children or attending graduate school because of their student loan indebtedness.

"The fact is, working students are not going to earn enough to make a difference," says Hesel. "They are asking for a lot of potential problems for very little benefit."

Hesel's job is to advise the colleges and universities who are his clients, and he is telling them they must do a better job of counseling the student who wants to work.

"Some institutions are trying to discourage work," he says. But if a student must work, or is determined to do so, Hesel says, it is up to the college or university to help him find meaningful work -- work that might help the student decide what to study or work that might dovetail with curriculum or career plans.

Some colleges and universities offer this type of cooperative education, where work experiences either alternate with or parallel a student's course of study. It may take a student five years to graduate, but he has been earning significant money and getting the kind of experience and training that can give him a leg up in a job search.

But almost half the students surveyed by StudentPOLL had not heard of cooperative education or did not know how it works.

These cooperative learning programs need to be carefully monitored to be successful and, right now, faculty members have no professional incentives to do this kind of hustling.

"These programs can be badly managed," Hesel says. "And badly marketed."

Parents need to counsel the students, too. The StudentPOLL survey reported that only in a very few cases were kids compelled to work by their parents. But, to an alarming degree, parents supported their child's decision to take a job during the first -- and perhaps the most difficult and critical -- year of college.

"The survey shows that we parents need to be giving stronger advice to our kids," says Hesel.

Somebody has to say, "Hey. You already have a job. Your school work is your job."

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