Gas station without pumps

2014 March 4

Get a job! (or maybe not)

Filed under: Uncategorized — gasstationwithoutpumps @ 12:34
Tags: , ,

There is an interesting discussion going on in the comment section of a Cost of College blog post. The basic advice of the post was “Advice to college students:  Get a job!  (But don’t slack off on studying.)”

Both CSProfMom and I have been arguing with the author that some jobs are valuable to STEM students, but that others waste their time without providing any benefit to their eventually getting a decent job in their field.

Employers in technical fields want their employees to have the appropriate technical and professional skills, which they generally measure by education and relevant prior work experience. Time spent flipping burgers or making cappuccino does not add anything to an engineering student’s resume, other than a fairly trivial “shows up for work,” which does not distinguish among students who have had the work ethic needed to finish an engineering degree.

What students need is evidence that they can do the work that the company needs done. Technical internships are one excellent way to show this, as are summer research experiences (like the NSF REU program) and senior theses or capstone projects supervised by faculty. Spending 20–30 hours a week at a minimum-wage job, as many students need to do in order to pay tuition, cuts into the ability of students to get into these career-building opportunities, both because they lack the time and because the long hours spent working instead of studying lower their grades and make it harder for them to get into the competitive programs that would benefit them most.

CSProfMom summarized the problem well:

I think “any work at all” is great advice for teens from wealthy leafy suburbs who are heading to Trinity or Oberlin and who have never worked at anything save some babysitting or lifeguarding. A few hours a week of burger flipping is good for those kids and isn’t going to hurt their grades. But when you have kids who are already starting behind because of their background, who are working 30 to 40 hours a week at low-level jobs, often alongside co-workers who are not good influences (and that was very much my experience—my co-workers were doing and selling drugs on the side), for employers who could care less that they have school obligations, you have a problem. And when employers tell us after reviewing student resumes that they are surprised at their lack of technical work experience, as happened last week, then you doubly have a problem. The reality is that technical employers really don’t care about work experience as a gas station attendant. They want students with proven skills in technical areas, who have shown they can work in a technical environment. My students largely do not have that, and thus they are at a severe disadvantage in the job market.

The bottom line is that students should be seeking relevant work experience in their field, not just arbitrary jobs.

CSProfMom also expressed the inherent inequality of the current system:

My students would have a much better shot at the best jobs if they didn’t have to work 30 hours as security guards or shelf stockers. This is a subtle, or maybe even not so subtle, way that inequality is increased.

 I think that there is a very strong case to be made for making public colleges and universities tuition-free, eliminating the high-tuition, high-aid model that leaves middle-class students deep in debt and poor students spending all their time on low-paying jobs instead of studying. The Campaign for the Future of Higher Education has pointers to analyses of what it would cost to provide tuition-free higher education in the US (as California used to do and as Germany has returned to doing after a brief fling with American-style tuition), and a petition to urge politicians and public universities to move to a tuition-free model for public higher education.



  1. Do you also believe that free tuition should not require any special qualification that a student be academically prepared for college, as Pell Grants are currently administered? IOW, basically if you have a pulse, you would get free tuition.

    Comment by costofcollege — 2014 March 5 @ 09:18 | Reply

    • Yes, but not necessarily at any institution. California community colleges are open to any adult (and some younger students), and their tuition is currently very low. Making it free for students in degree programs and keeping the current low tuition for students taking courses for fun would not increase the cost to taxpayers much, but could make a big difference in how accessible college is to the poor. Cal State and Univ. of California have tougher admissions standards—providing free tuition to students admitted to those colleges (as California used to do) would not be giving free tuition to everyone with a pulse. Again, the cost is not outrageously high—far less than what California spends on imprisoning a larger fraction of the population than any other state or country.

      Comment by gasstationwithoutpumps — 2014 March 5 @ 09:57 | Reply

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