American university students work too much – at jobs, not school
Upon my arrival in the states from Britain, one of the first conversations I had with my roommate was about sleep. I stated that I tend to go to bed around midnight no matter what, even if I don’t have classes the next day until the afternoon.
“You’ll soon learn to live without sleep, being an American college student,” my roommate said. I thought he was joking.
My roommate often talks about how exhausted he is. He isn’t alone. Each year, thousands of American college students report to health centres because of exhaustion, yet only recently have the true effects of poor sleep on young adults been documented. The health centre nurses at my US university look at you sympathetically, then prescribe sleeping pills. These, of course, don’t actually solve the problem, they just make it worse.
The real reason why US college students are so tired is because they put work before just about everything, including their studies. They take fifteen or eighteen credit hours per week and hold a campus job and maybe an internship on top of that.
I’d like to say I kept my British sensibilities and bucked the trend, but frankly, having a campus job is so pervasive in the US that I ended up joining in. Since January, I have been completely addicted to coffee, using it to prop me up during the week and then crashing on weekends.
My job is working at the campus radio station. In the UK, this would be unpaid. Being in charge of the news is seen as an honour, as opposed to something you worth competing for, and for money. In America, it seems that everyone has a job somewhere, often so students can work their way through college.
“It makes their lives easier. I’d rather see them earning on campus than having to drive all the way to a big city just to earn the same, and have their grades suffer as a result,” my station manager said. There’s a certain, brilliant American logic here, making the best of a bad situation.
Part of the problem is student debt. In America, colleges and institutions charge pretty much anything they want. Student loans are not as kind here as they are in the UK. The US has no centralised loan company operated by the government, charging at very low interest. Here, most students have to navigate a complex market system, and the second you graduate, interest rates often spike. One of my host families has a friend whose son considered himself lucky to leave medical school “with only $150,000 of debt”.
Because of high loans and interest rates, many American students start college seeking a job either on campus or locally, with the idea of making as much as possible to cut down on loans. I’ve also met at least two people here who plan to go straight to military after college, simply because the military will pay off their college debts.
I’m starting to wonder if the UK will soon look like this. University freshman in Britain could leave school with up to £60,000 of debt. For all the scary headlines about American college debt, the average amount of debt for US college graduates is $26,600.
As the National Union of Students president said at the time, saddling students with “a small mortgage” is scandalous. Can you really expect students focus on education and work and keep performing well in both? Aside from that, students have to worry about getting a job in the current market and paying off student loans after graduation – no laughing matter.
So, does all this work during your college years really pay off? The statistics are tough to compare, but having campus employment on your resume doesn’t seem to guarantee anything post-graduation, at least in this economy. In the states, 53.6% of young people report being unemployed or underemployed four years after graduation.
It’s hard to ignore the financial realities facing UK and US students. Back in Britain, it seemed to me that the only students who worked did so to make more money for drinking and socialising. In the US, a campus job is an accepted part of college life. It’s standard; you almost have to.
Consider my ever tired roommate. He’s away every Friday to Sunday at his parents’ because it’s an easier commute to his weekend job from there than from campus. As soon as he’s finished classes for the week, he’s out the door and working at a fast food chain 20 miles down the road.
Your university years are your most creative, and they’re a beautiful time in your life: you can travel, do anything you like, and nobody much cares because you still have the excuse of being a young, foolish adult. It seems to me that this increasingly money-driven education system wants to enslave us to a life of debt and credit before we’ve even fully matured.
There’s a case to be made for enterprise, and learning what about’the real world’ while still sheltered at university – you probably don’t have a family to support, and your mistakes (which my age group makes all the time) probably won’t matter. But it makes life cruel here, to be completely honest. The American college system is a harsh and unforgiving place. For the sake of my sleep, I cannot wait to get back to Britain and lie in bed under the guise of ‘jetlag’ for awhile.
Originally written by Richard Morris, for The Guardian. Article can be found here.