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How to Balance Working Full Time and Going to School

Michael McCarthy

Written By: Michael McCarthy

Published: 7/20/2022

Higher education has grown increasingly expensive, and many people are unwilling to take on large amounts of student loan debt. Because of this, a lot of students work full time to support themselves during college and graduate school. Many of these are part-time students, but even 10% of full-time enrollees work 35 or more hours per week. How do they balance their priorities, and how difficult can the experience be?  

You may be asking yourself these questions right now. Read on for ideas about managing your time if you're considering working 30 or more hours per week while attending college (the IRS definition of full-time work).

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How To Go to School and Work Full Time

Many people simply aren't in a financial position to take four years off work to earn a bachelor's degree, or even one year off to attend an accelerated master's degree program. This is especially true of adult learners, who tend to be more financially independent of the people who raised them and are more likely to have families of their own. 

With this in mind, we list some tips below for managing your time while balancing work and study. First up, you may want to take the following steps before applying for school.

If applicable, discuss your options with your partner and family. If your busy schedule affects more than just you, then it's a good idea to include those people in your planning. Work on your goals together, and determine how they can pitch in to help you if needed. Plan for new childcare arrangements well in advance so they're in place when you matriculate. 

Write down your goals. Figure out what you want to achieve by enrolling as a working student. Your goals can be anything that matters to you, such as "Graduate in 8-9 semesters" or "Take on less than $15,000 in student loan debt." Next, write each down in detail, along with your plan for achieving it. Research shows that people who write their goals down are significantly more likely to meet them.

Decide whether to attend part time or full time. Choosing to enroll on a part-time basis may help narrow your options because not all degree programs are offered part time. For example, faculty design Master of Arts in Teaching degrees to last for one credit-heavy year, so this route isn't an option for full-time employees.

Determine what you're willing to give up. Every decision about higher education involves opportunity costs, and you'll need to organize your priorities if you want to work full time as a student. This might mean putting away video games for a few years, accepting that some of your piano skills will atrophy, or missing some of your children's soccer games. 

Understand that you may need to stop working for pay if your major requires a supervised experience in a different field. For example, if you're studying for a degree in nursing, you'll need to complete a supervised clinical rotation toward the end of your program (regardless of the degree level). If you currently work in another field, you'll most likely need to give up your job or take leave in favor of your clinical experience, which takes hundreds of hours at the Bachelor of Science in Nursing level. 

Once you've done all of this, then it's time to apply to school. Keep the following suggestions in mind if you're accepted and decide to enroll in a program. 

Review your goals periodically. This review might help you reaffirm your educational and career path, but it can also give you a chance to modify your goals based on what you've learned. For example, you might decide to change your major, which will lead to a new career goal, or you may want to switch to a part-time schedule because full-time study is too much on top of full-time work.

Keep in touch with your academic advisor. This person's job is to help you succeed, so meet with them early in your program and explain your situation. They can help you schedule classes at times that work while keeping an eye on your required courses and when they're available down the line. This may prove useful in helping you graduate on your proposed timeline.

Stay organized. You've taken on a lot of work, and something is bound to slip through the cracks if you rely only on your memory. Maintain a clear, accessible calendar of your work schedule, class schedule, assignment due dates, upcoming tests, dedicated study time, and personal obligations. You might use a low-cost app or software tool to help you customize an organizational system.

Take care of yourself. Just because you're busy doesn't mean you should neglect your physical and mental health. Everybody needs rest to de-stress, and you risk burnout by pushing when your body and mind tell you otherwise. Grace Baena, a brand director for an online retailer, advises you to "schedule an hour or two per day to destress by reading a book or watching an episode of your favorite show. You might feel like you're being unproductive, but in the end taking a break will actually make you far more efficient in your daily tasks. "Beyond short breaks, you can create a regular exercise routine to manage stress, listen to relaxation or meditation apps on your phone, and take occasional mental health days off work. For serious issues, consult your school's counseling line or student services office for help. You're not alone, and there are people who can help.

Benefits of Attending Online School

There are understandable reasons why online college degrees have risen in popularity. Perhaps first among these is the inherent flexibility of distance learning: Most online classes are asynchronous, with no set meeting times. This allows you to view lectures and materials at your convenience. Online programs also eliminate commute time, which can be a factor for working students. All of this makes it easier to organize school and study time around your work shifts. 

For more information about studying online, explore our Guide to Starting Your Online Education.

Can You Work Full Time During Graduate School?

According to the most recent comprehensive study of this topic, full-time work is actually more common for graduate students than for undergraduates. This is because many graduate students begin pursuing their higher degree after a few years in the workforce. Faculty understand this and tend to organize graduate degree programs to be friendly for working adults, with part-time paths and many classes offered at night.

But there are exceptions. As discussed, colleges offer one-year master's programs in subjects ranging from teaching to international relations, which would preclude a full-time job while in school. In addition, medical school students must attend full time and usually don't get to choose conveniently timed classes.

However, you can potentially enroll in some of the most popular graduate degrees on a part-time basis, both on campus and online. These popular graduate degrees include the following:

  • Juris Doctor (law) degrees — These used to be exclusively full time, but in recent years, the American Bar Association has approved a number of part-time programs.
  • MBAs — These remain the most commonly sought master's degree in the US. Their popularity has led administrators to design many flexible types of MBA degrees.
  • Nursing programs, such as a Master of Science in Nursing — You need nursing experience to enroll in graduate nursing programs, so most are designed for working professionals. Your school may even let you complete your clinical rotation with your current employer as long as you gain new types of experiences.

Pros and Cons of Working Full Time While Going to School

When faced with a life-altering decision, it can be helpful to weigh the pros and cons of each course of action. We've included some ideas here, but be sure to account for everything that applies to you and your particular situation.

Potential Benefits

Earning while learning can help you graduate with less debt. Less debt means less chance of defaulting down the line because you're able to pay off your obligations more quickly. This can spare you serious financial consequences later in life.

Working undergraduates tend to earn higher salaries after college. One study found that the more money enrollees earned while studying, the greater their wage premium after college. This appears to be true across a range of variables and even for college students who don't graduate.

Potential Drawbacks

Put simply, it's hard to work full time while attending a degree program. You're simultaneously taking on two major stressors, each independent of the other, expecting to achieve good results. In addition, your focus on school and your job may strain important relationships in your life because you'll have less time to devote to them. Marketing specialist, Conner Arvidson, describes weekdays filled with 17 hours of commuting, working, and taking class. Still, he says that he took 15 credits per term "because I knew if I didn't get it done as fast as I could, I wouldn't have the motivation to keep at it year after year."

Your grades may suffer if you work full time. Research indicates that students who work more than 20 hours per week earn lower grades and tend to drop out of classes at a higher rate. This can potentially affect when you graduate or lead you to drop out entirely. Note that this research only covers students with full-time course loads; it's less clear how full-time work affects part-time study.

How to Go to School Full Time and Not Work

You might be able to take a loaded class schedule without working full time for at least part of your degree program. Jamie Pritscher-Tomaino, cofounder of a catering marketing company, worked full days for two years while attending a community college close to home. She then finished her bachelor's degree at Illinois State University: "I would come home and work weekends/summers at [a salon], but I did not have full-time employment year round."

As you periodically review your goals, ask yourself the following questions about your financial situation to see if you can reduce or eliminate your work hours. These questions apply for all working learners, regardless of status as undergraduates or graduate students. 

Would part-time work be enough?

First determine whether your employer will allow you to reduce your hours to fewer than 30 per week. Then evaluate your budget, including income and expenditures for you and your family, to see whether the new schedule would provide enough income to keep you comfortable. Moving to part-time work might require you to increase your student loan obligations — see the next question.

Am I now willing to take on more debt?

After some period of studying and working full time, you might decide that your situation is unsustainable. In this case, you can try to find additional sources of gift aid — see the next question — or take on more loans to make up the cost difference. The best lenders are usually federal and state governments, who tend to offer better interest rates and terms than private sources

Can I receive enough financial aid to satisfy my concerns about debt?

Talk to your school's financial aid office in addition to conducting your own research into grants and scholarships you may qualify for. These funds are called "gift aid" because you don't need to pay them back; they just take money off the top of your school costs. It's worth reviewing your options at least every year because new scholarships are endowed all the time, or you may be newly eligible for existing ones. Some funds are only open to students who've completed their first year, and others are designed to help people complete their final few terms.

Has anything else changed about my finances?

Sometimes unforeseen circumstances can benefit your budget. Perhaps your partner secured a great new job, or maybe you inherited or won some money. If you've experienced an influx of funds, review your budget to see if the additional income allows you to reduce your hours or quit working altogether.

FAQs About Balancing Full-Time Work and School

Is It Worth Working While Going to School?

Only you can answer this question because there are advantages and disadvantages. The chief advantage is that you'll keep earning a paycheck while in school, which will likely help you graduate with less debt. Jeremy Yamaguchi, CEO of a lawn care services company, is glad that he worked in lawn maintenance early in the mornings and on weekends "because it helped me avoid massive student loan debt, though at the time it was absolutely exhausting."

On the other hand, there's a chance that you won't graduate at all because this is a difficult path that takes very hard work and dedication. Some people decide that it isn't worth the cost, so they choose to either quit school or work; in the latter case, they generally take out more student loans to help finance their degree.

Should You Tell Your Employer You Are Going Back to School?

The answer is usually yes, you should let your employer know that you're pursuing a degree. If you have a good relationship with your manager, they might be more understanding if you need time off for school or mental health breaks. Some employers even help finance an employee's degree if it's relevant to the employer's mission and the employee agrees to a certain period of service after graduating.

How Many Hours a Week Should I Work as a Full-Time Student?

This depends on your goals, but research indicates that academic performance often degrades once students begin working more than 20 hours weekly. Interestingly, students who work 15-20 hours per week have stronger outcomes than those who don't work at all. So the answer may be 15-20 hours per week if your aim is to earn the best possible grades — but if your chief goal is to graduate with as little debt as you can, then you may want to work 30-40 hours.

How Do You Finish School While Working Full Time?

It takes determination, organization, and effective time management to complete your degree while earning a paycheck. You may need a system for organizing coursework, lecture-watching and reading time, work project due dates if applicable, and personal obligations. Your academic advisor is a good resource on the college side, and it helps to have buy-in from your manager at work and any partner and family in your life.

Bottom Line

You're choosing a challenging path by pursuing higher education while working full time, but many graduates have managed it successfully. Whether you're seeking an undergraduate or graduate degree, it's helpful to set and update goals periodically, stay organized, and exercise self-care related to your physical health, mental well-being, and personal relationships.

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