Education

Swing Shift

With rising tuition, more students are mixing earning with learning

D’Arcy Jenish,Sherri Aikenhead October 30 2000
Education

Swing Shift

With rising tuition, more students are mixing earning with learning

D’Arcy Jenish,Sherri Aikenhead October 30 2000
Laura Weaver deftly arranges cheese and pepperoni toppings on a pizza, slides it into a nearby oven, then turns to the lineup of youngsters waiting at the counter to place their orders. It’s a busy Friday night at the Iroquois Park Sports Center in Whitby, Ont., with hockey games or practices on all six ice surfaces. And for Weaver, now in Grade 12, it is the end of a typically hectic week juggling her studies and her job at the Intermissions snack bar. The 17-year-old handles a full course load, coaches a girls’ volleyball team and works up to 25 hours weekly. Her point of pride? She has bought a used car—a 1986 Celebrity—and has socked away close to $5,000 for university. But Weaver, who has her heart set on studying environmental science at either Queen’s, McMaster or Lakehead universities, admits that her savings will make only a small dent in the total bill: “I know my education is going to cost a lot more than I’ve saved.”

Like many of her peers, Weaver has been well educated on the cost of going to university. Undergraduate arts students now pay an average of $3,380 in tuition—an increase of 125 per cent in a decade. Those who leave home to go to university face an annual cost of $10,000 to $13,000. Little wonder that high-school students face increased pressure to save for post-secondary education. According to Statistics Canada, close to a third of Canadians aged 15 to 19 worked part time last year, with the number rising for the second year in a row. Working students have become a permanent part of the academic landscape. Last year, the Canadian Undergraduate Survey Consortium, a joint research project involving 23 universities, reported that 50 per cent of the students who responded to a questionnaire said they were working an average of 18 hours per week. The survey also revealed that another 13.5 per cent were seeking work. “Students have a whole new ethic,” says Peter Dueck, director of enrollment services at the University of Manitoba. “It’s a fairly serious approach to life and education.”

Many educators fear that low-wage part-time jobs—flipping burgers, washing dishes or working at a checkout counter—may compromise a student’s academic performance. Bill Groeneveld, a guidance counselor at Chestermere High School near Calgary, warns: “It’s far easier to pay off a loan when you’re earning $30 an hour after graduation than it is to save when you’re earning $5 an hour.” But Betty Nicholson-Smith, a guidance counselor at Kings County Academy in Kentville, N.S., has a hard time dissuading her students from working. At the moment, 34 of the 66 students in her school’s graduating class have part-time jobs. “I have to talk to them about balance, and eliminating things from their schedules,” says Nicholson-Smith. “But it’s hard when they’re right about the costs.”

Most experts agree that working up to 20 hours a week has little or no impact on academic achievement. But in a study last year, Statistics Canada found that of those students working more than 20 hours a week in their final year of high school, only 27 per cent went on to post-secondary studies. By comparison, 45 per cent of those who worked less than 20 hours, or not at all, moved on.

Research at the university level has yielded similar results. In 1995, Paul Grayson, an associate dean at Toronto’s York University, surveyed the relationship between work and academic performance. The results, culled from 1,848 respondents, revealed that those who worked one to eight hours a week obtained marginally better grades than those who did not work. Students employed nine to 16 hours a week earned the same marks as the ones who were unemployed. Only at 17 hours or more did grades begin to decline. “Work in and of itself is not harmful,” says Grayson. “Kids can fritter away a lot of hours doing nothing. If they’re organized and working, they may spend less time watching TV. It doesn’t mean they’ll spend less time on their studies.”

Some students have discovered that paying for their own education brings big sacrifices, and tough choices. Erin Stark, an 18-year-old Bedford, N.S., student is living at home while taking a first-year arts program at Saint Mary’s University in Halifax. Given the combined income of her parents, both of whom are government employees, she does not qualify for the provincial student-aid program. In her Grade 12 year, Stark worked at a local Dairy Queen, continuing there six days a week last summer. She earned $5.60 an hour, and managed to save $3,300—a significant sum but not enough to cover her $4,420 tuition bill. As a result, she is continuing at the Dairy Queen, up to 24 hours a week. “You don’t have time to relax, ever,” says Stark. “You get used to being constantly tired. You don’t enjoy the money because it goes towards education. My last paycheck was spent on a Greek mythology textbook.”

For many students, the prospect of university has given them their first taste of financial planning. Nick Bishop, an 18-year-old student at Frontenac Secondary School in Kingston, Ont., hopes to study geology at the University of Waterloo in Waterloo, Ont., next year. He and his father, David, a police officer, have calculated that his first year will cost $ 12,500, and have decided that Nick will come up with $4,000. For the past 16 months, he has worked up to 25 hours per week at the checkout counter of a Jumbo Video outlet, saving $2,500 in the process. Says Bishop: “All my paychecks go straight to my bank account.”

While part-time work may teach students how to become big savers, some educators worry that many are as likely to become big spenders. “I don’t sense that a lot of saving is taking place,” says Bob Sipos, a guidance counselor at Lauren Hill Academy, a suburban Montreal high school. “These kids are spending a lot of money, typically on entertainment, and way, way more than a parental allowance would permit.” George Samuelson, principal at St. Thomas Aquinas Catholic Secondary School in London, Ont., says a large majority of his Grade 12 and 13 students hold down one or two jobs, but many lack the self-discipline required to save. “An awful lot of their money goes into cars,” says Samuelson. “It's sort of a standing joke around here that there are more BMWs and other high-end vehicles in the student parking lot than the staff lot.”

Calgary student Shawn Sandhu, 17, now in his final year at Sir Winston Churchill High School, is taking a disciplined approach. Sandhu plans to study either computer programming at Mount Royal College in Calgary or avionics technology at the Southern Alberta Institute of Technology, both of which cost about $8,500 over two years. He is also studying for his pilot’s license, which would be an asset for avionics. Until recently, Sandhu was working about 15 hours weekly at a Dairy Queen, earning $5.90 per hour, but he has switched to a new job at Toys “R” Us, which pays $6.65 hourly. He turns more than 75 per cent of his earnings over to his mother, who invests the money in bonds. “Working part time is good for the money and the experience,” says Sandhu. “But if it interferes with your schoolwork, you should quit.”

Especially if it means the loss of a scholarship opportunity. Sanjeev Pushkarna, a 17-year-old student at Kings County Academy, worked for three months last year as a clerk at a Sobeys supermarket and delivered newspapers before school. He also played soccer, hockey, volleyball and basketball, served on the students’ council and maintained an average in the mid-90s. Recalls Pushkarna: “I’d run home from school, run to work, work until 10 or 11 at night, study, fall asleep, then be up at 6 a.m. to do my papers.”

Pushkarna finally gave up the supermarket job, hoping to compensate for the lost income by winning a scholarship. That may prove to be a wise choice given the proliferation of awards created in recent years by universities, governments, companies and charitable organizations. Many awards are small—less than $500—and are given on the basis of need, community service and leadership abilities as well as academic performance. But most institutions offer a number of valuable scholarships for elite students. Competition for these awards is very stiff, says Ron Chilibeck, director of student awards at the University of Alberta. “A drop of one-tenth of a per cent in a student’s average,” he adds, “can make a difference of thousands of dollars. No doubt about it.”

But for those who can juggle work and studies, the experience can prove invaluable. At 24, Calgarian Laura Lucas has 10 years of full-and part-time employment behind her. She has worked in coffee shops and retail outlets, and as a volunteer with the city’s parks and recreation department. During the school year, she worked as many as 20 hours a week, and 60 during the summer. She earned a bachelor’s degree in anthropology from the University of Calgary and a diploma in environmental technology from Mount Royal College, and now works as an investor relations co-ordinator for a local mining company, Uravan Minerals Inc. Larson says she learned how to manage time and money as a working student, and began to develop the personal skills required to deal with colleagues and supervisors. “I feel sorry for the kids who never worked,” says Larson.“I got just as much experience at a coffee shop as I did at school.”