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Working while in college: A juggling act, not a holiday show

Over the long weekend, Western's ranks thinned out as many college students traveled home for the holidays, leaving behind a small portion of students who either chose not to or couldn’t make the trip. 

Many students had to cut their holiday breaks short because of work. Every year, the national shopping holiday known as Black Friday begins earlier and earlier. This year, some stores began sales before Thanksgiving dinner could even start. Best Buy along with some stores in Bellis Fair Mall opened at 5 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day, according to The Bellingham Herald.    

Students who work were forced to decide between working the holiday or relaxing with loved ones. Although it might sound like an easy choice, employers are making it more difficult. Some businesses offer increased holiday pay, which for a struggling college student, can be hard to turn down. Other employers threaten to fire those who refuse to work the absurd hours without providing financial compensation. 

Either way, it leaves students who rely on a job for financial support in a rough spot with little choice but to work. Other students who do not need to work or receive aid from family, grants or scholarships are able to walk away and unwind throughout the holiday season - returning only when desired. 

Even though Western is actually one of the more affordable universities in Washington state, it remains costly for students who support themselves entirely. According to data from Western’s admissions office, 60 percent of Western students receive some sort of financial aid, but that statistic encompasses all types of aid, including loans. 

Loans should not be considered aid. 

Yes, loans make it possible for many students to attend college who do not qualify for alternative forms of aid, but at the end of the day, it is unfair to expect students to settle for graduating in debt. The cumulative national student debt reached $1.52 trillion in 2018, according to Forbes. 

Illustration by Cole Sandhofer

To expect a student’s parent to pay a portion of their tuition is also unfair. There is no way to guarantee what type of relationship a student has with their parents or that a parent has the additional funds outside of their monthly bills and expenses to pay a student’s tuition, too. Expecting financial help from parents also assumes all students have a parental figure in their life, which is not always the case. 

Many students are forced to work to support themselves at least partially. But there is an ongoing divide between students who work part-time, full-time and those who don’t work at all.

The problem isn’t that students can’t or shouldn’t work at all. However, the minimum wage in Bellingham of $11.50 hardly exceeds the living hourly wage of $11.02 in Whatcom County, according to the living wage online calculator. Therefore, that leaves students who work full-time and don’t have additional help barely above the poverty line with no extra funds whatsoever to pay for an education. 

Over the course of the 2017-18 school year, approximately 3,500 students worked on-campus jobs, according to Western’s Student Employment Office. Western limits on-campus student employees to only 19 hours of work a week while classes are in session. But Western has no say in how many hours students work off campus. 

This leaves students who don’t receive financial aid choosing between graduating with thousands of dollars of debt or to work themselves to exhaustion. About 40 percent of undergraduate students work at least 30 hours a week, according to the College of St. Scholastica. 

Working while in college can have many benefits aside from the financial gain. According to Ashford University, 91 percent of employers prefer potential hires to have previous work experience. But there is no doubt that working while in college can have negative effects on a student’s social life, GPA and health. Working over 20 hours off campus can even increase the likelihood of dropping out of college before earning a degree, according to a study conducted at Brigham Young University Idaho. 

So what can we do to support students who are left with working nearly full-time as their only option?

One solution proposed in the The Daily Illini suggests giving class credit to those who work a sufficient amount of hours per week. This would make it possible for students to gain elective credits to ensure timely graduation without over exhausting themselves. 

One argument mentioned time and again for students seeking financial support is to apply for scholarships, but scholarships regularly pitt students against each other. In a competition to win scholarships based on comparison of GPA, extracurriculars and community service, who is going to win out? A student with more or less free time? 

Another potential way to help working students is to grant them priority registration. Some Western athletes already receive priority registration so they can balance their beloved sport with school. Why wouldn’t we give student workers the same support? 

At the end of the day, we need to find a better way to help bridge this gap. At a school that promotes student success, it is absurd that we don’t make more of an effort to recognize and accommodate working students. After all, they wouldn’t be able to afford their educations at Western if it weren’t for their jobs elsewhere. 

The Western Front Editorial Board is composed of Alyssa Bruce, Julia Furukawa and Ray Garcia.

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