Economics lesson for college students

Stress: Amid rising tuition, budget cuts and less help from home, more and more undergraduates are having to balance jobs and classes.

September 01, 2002|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

Morgan State University senior Tavon Pope is used to standing in lines at semester's start - to sign up for classes, to buy books. But this is the first year that the history major from West Baltimore has had to line up for money and a job.

His mother was laid off from her computer programming job this spring because of the slow economy. That means she can't help with tuition, and so, for the first time at Morgan, Pope will have to take out loans and get a campus work-study job, probably for 25 hours a week.

"If I have to do more than that, I'll do more," Pope said late last week, holding a slip with the number 124 in a long line outside the financial aid office. "Whenever I have time off, I'll have to work."

As students return to college around the state, they are arriving with more than the usual baggage: signs of financial stress stemming from the economic slowdown. Some are receiving less support from home because parents have been laid off or suffered stock market losses; others are having a harder time finding good part-time jobs to pay tuition bills.

Taken together, students' increased financial demands are accelerating a nationwide trend under way for a decade: More college students are holding jobs - and working longer hours - while they study. Finding a job, whether to pay for tuition or for personal expenses such as cell phones and bar tabs, has become as much a back-to-school rite as decorating a dorm room or rushing a fraternity.

"College students are working much too much, in ways that all the academic research says adversely affects performance," said Thomas G. Mortenson, a national expert on college affordability, based in Iowa. "The proportion of those working full-time has grown enormously in the 1990s. Student employment has lots of purposes, but if you overdo it, it causes trouble."

Nationally, more than 60 percent of 18- to 22-year-old students at four-year colleges hold jobs, and a quarter of those work full time, U.S. Census data shows.

Morgan State expects an increase in job-seekers this year over last year, when about 800 of its 6,000 undergraduates took jobs through the on-campus job-placement office, said Sherna M. Thomas, supervisor of student work programs. At the same time, the university has suffered a 30 percent cut in federal subsidies for work-study jobs because of budget reductions, which means the school might not be able to place all job-seekers in campus positions.

Towson University has more positions to offer its increasing number of job-seeking students, thanks to a 50 percent increase this year in federal subsidies, a reward for Towson's emphasis on community-service-based jobs, financial aid director Vince C. Pecora said. Of the university's 13,000 undergraduates, about 2,000 hold jobs through the campus, and 300 of them qualify for federal work-study support. Several thousand more work off-campus.

And this week the Johns Hopkins University will hold its annual job fair, where 80 campus departments and off-campus employers will be recruiting. Last year, about 1,800 of the Hopkins' 3,900 undergraduates held jobs through the university's employment office, about half of them subsidized by federal work-study funds.

Financial aid officers say the increase in employment is driven in part by rising tuition. This year, in-state undergraduate tuition at most public campuses in Maryland rose 5.5 percent, the largest increase in five years, to offset stagnant state funding; many private colleges also passed along unusually high increases to offset drops in their endowment investments.

But the boom in college employment isn't limited to students struggling to pay tuition. More students from well-off families work long hours to pay for personal expenses and, in some cases, to boost their resumes, with jobs in laboratories or community-service programs, campus officials say.

Bailey Susic, a Towson freshman from Ellicott City, will be working 30 hours a week this semester as an assistant supervisor at the Edenwald retirement community, though her family is paying for tuition and housing.

It doesn't leave much time for studying, she said, but she needs the spending money and enjoys the job. And she's better off than her roommate, who is scheduled to work 65 hours a week at a restaurant.

Towson senior Matt Lyneis, a sports-management major from Cecil County, is training for a job as a waiter at Bill Bateman's in Towson, where he will work about 20 hours a week, though his tuition and rent are paid for by a family endowment.

"It's just to have spending money to get groceries, to go out," he said. "Sometimes school suffers a little, because I come back tired at night and want to hang out and not study."

Some students are having trouble finding the long hours they want. Kripa Cuddapa, a Towson senior from Glen Burnie, learned last week that her hours at Macy's will be cut, leaving her with less money to save for a car and graduate school.

Campus officials say the increase in student employment has helped extend students' stays on campus, as they take smaller course loads to make room for work. At the University of Maryland, College Park, about as many students who entered in 1995 took five or six years to graduate as graduated in four years.

Pope, the Morgan State senior, doesn't want that to happen to him. He plans to take six courses this fall, even with his 25 hours of work, so he can graduate in January.

"Because this is my last semester, I'm going to finish," he said. "I prefer to do it that way."

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