Sophomore Nassim Touil has a routine: wake up, go to work at one of his two jobs until 5 p.m., go to night class, do homework, go to sleep – and repeat.
Sometimes friends throw a wrench in his schedule – a potential dinner plan – and Touil has to turn them down because he has a class.
“It’s really hard to find a time for a break,” he said. “When it comes time for midterms, finding the time to study was really stressful because it’s hard to dedicate the time and when I’m working I can’t really study either.”
For students who work to support themselves financially, every day is a balancing act. From studying for tests to ringing up items at a cash register, students say they are sacrificing their social lives and sleep schedules to ensure they have money in the bank.
In more than 15 interviews with students who have jobs, workers said exhaustion and lowered grades are side effects of a financially vital part of their lives. Experts said working excessively may help relieve affordability issues that students encounter – especially at a University with a nearly $70,000 annual cost of attendance – but can also exacerbate mental health issues.
In 2015, about a quarter of all full-time college students were working a full-time job, and nearly seven in 10 students worked part time, according to research from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. The researchers found that working while studying is more than just a passing trend – it is “the new normal.”
Combatting affordability concerns
Katie O’Connell, a senior in the Elliott School of International Affairs, has four jobs – at a patent law firm, the undergraduate admissions office, Georgetown Cupcakes and as a soccer referee.
O’Connell said she works to help cover her tuition, and that working a combined 45 hours a week leaves her exhausted by the end of every day.
“I’m really tired at the end of the night because I still have homework I have to do,” she said. “It is, at some point, a stressful situation.”
O’Connell, who lives off campus, said she uses the money earned from her jobs to pay for bills and utilities, groceries and car expenses — in addition to the cost of being a full-time student.
“The price of living is very, very high, and the price of comfort is very high,” she said. “That puts an enormous burden on juniors, seniors – even freshman and sophomores and their families – and they have to work and be tired.”
In 2015, a report found that a person would have to earn more than $108,000 each year to “live comfortably” in the District, making it one of the most expensive cities in the country, USA Today reported at the time.
Affordability issues have trickled their way into almost every University department in recent years. Facing student concerns about the cost of meal plans, last year officials introduced meal deals with discounted meal prices at participating vendors, and this academic year, officials added $200 to all student dining plans.
The issue has also been a major focus of the Student Association. Last academic year, the organization required all of its committees to produce affordability reports, recommending ways to lower costs across campus.
Since 2013, officials have increased the financial aid pool each year to meet rising student need and raised more than $145 million for student scholarships as part of the $1 billion fundraising campaign that ended in June.
Balancing school and work
Mckenzie Swain, a sophomore in the Elliott School, works two jobs – a federal work-study position in the Elliott School’s Institute for International Economic Policy and an unpaid internship with the Department of Education. Swain said her 30-hour work week has negatively impacted her grades.
“I’m used to doing pretty well and getting majority As, but it’s definitely to the point where I’ve planned every free hour that I’m not working,” she said.
Emma Montero, a sophomore in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, said she’s often afraid to tell professors that she has to work because they might question her priorities – even though she must work to support herself and her family.
“I know that if there’s a class I’m struggling in, I feel like I can put aside time to study, but I may not be in it all the way,” she said. “I can’t dedicate as much time because I have to go to work.”
Russ Korte, an associate professor of human and organizational learning at the Graduate School of Education and Human Development, said students with jobs often hand in “rushed” work, earning them lower grades.
“The quality of the assignments – often times with some students that don’t have a lot of time – it’s not high-quality work,” he said.
Nicole Smith, a research professor and chief economist at Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, said students should aim to work about 15 to 20 hours a week if they need a job, because that “sweet spot” allows individuals to build resumes without sacrificing educational priorities.
She said students who work too often get stuck in a vicious cycle of not sleeping, which contributes to larger problems – like skipping and flunking classes, not graduating and then later not getting the job opportunities to earn enough money to pay off student loans. Smith said these larger problems can have an impact on a student’s mental health.
“The trick is to make sure that you still recognize that you are a working student and not a student worker,” she said.
Mental health has been a growing part of the campus conversation in recent years. After lobbying from student leaders, officials moved Mental Health Services into the Marvin Center in 2015 and earlier this year, student leaders launched an anonymous peer hotline for students struggling with mental health issues.
Junior Elizabeth Jensen, who works at an unpaid internship and held two jobs over the summer, said she would often have to sacrifice her social life and relaxation time in favor of her retail job, which she didn’t enjoy.
“If your hatred of your job is affecting other parts of your life, you need to quit,” she said. “No job, no experience, no internship is going to look as good on your resume as sound mental health is going to look for yourself and your life.”
Dani Grace, Yuval Lev, Lizzie Mintz, Sarah Roach and Mei Ling Wilson contributed reporting.