Thriving in College

With convocation being held this week, campus is bustling with the activity of thousands of new students. This includes about 850 new Engineering students at UMass Lowell, including freshmen and transfers. A recent post by Valerie Strauss, “Getting into college was the easy part. Staying there is becoming harder than ever, experts say,” in The Washington Post (August 14, 2017), which draws on a blog from Brennan Barnard, reminded me that the transition to college is not always easy for students. In fact, the article claimed that it is easier to get into college than to stay in college. I would disagree that it is easy to get into Engineering, but there is no doubt that one must be diligent to stay on track towards graduation. Continue reading

Defeating Student Debt through Co-op

The New York Times published an interesting article by Meredith Kolodner this week, entitled “6 Reasons You May Not Graduate on Time.” The author consulted a number of higher education professionals to define the leading causes. I’d like to focus on the first cause listed, “Working Overtime.”

According to the article, about 40 percent of undergraduates work 30 hours per week or more. Informal surveys in our classes support this number. This is a noble endeavor, as the student’s goal is generally to pay for College, including tuition, fees and living expenses. As noted in an earlier blog, the average debt of a student is around $34,000 upon graduation. This average amount of student debt is up nearly 70 percent in the last decade, according to a recent article in the The Wall Street Journal.

The problem is that working nearly full-time makes it difficult for a student to complete the required number of credits each semester to graduate on-time. That is, instead of taking 15 credits or more in a semester, students take a lighter load so they can work more hours. (Taking less than 15 credits a semester is also noted as a cause of delayed graduation by Kolodner.) But the problem is actually worse than taking a reduced load – working so many hours outside of the classroom detracts from time that should be spent on homework, studies and projects. This reduced time to devote to studies can lead to poor, even failing, grades, which in turn leads to repeating classes. The cascading effects should be clear, as graduation is pushed out further and further into the future. Even if one can muddle through the program, GPAs can be destroyed, making it difficult to land that great job upon graduation.

If there ever was a case for co-op education, this is it. Let’s do the finances.

Let’s assume that you register for 12 credits per semester because you want to work 30 hours per week to pay for tuition and fees. You land a retail position paying minimum wage, or $11 per hour in Massachusetts, for a total of $330 per week, which will result in about $265 per week in take home pay. Over the course of one semester (roughly 16 weeks with exams), this will total $4240 of take home pay. Not bad – as over two semesters this will cover roughly 60% of the in state tuition and fees at UMass Lowell. Working full-time over the summer will cover the remainder.

But wait. Let’s assume for a minute that the work truly got in the way of studies, such that the 24 credits, already at least six shy of what is needed in a given year to graduate in four years, is really only 18 credits of work towards the degree, because you had to drop one class each semester. Those 12 credits (6 dropped and 6 not attempted) are now an additional semester on campus – wiping out nearly all the money earned over the year.

How about the co-op option? Take six months, and get a job in your field. In engineering, this can easily mean $20 per hour. At full time, this is $800 per week, or about $612 take-home per week. Let’s assume 22 weeks (need a little time off), such that the total take home pay is $13,464 – enough to cover one full year of tuition and fees (in state) at UMass Lowell (with a few dollars left over). For the other six months, you do not work, so you can take 18 credits during the semester and another 6-9 credits in the six week summer session, before you return to work. With no other distractions, odds are, you will complete those courses successfully.

The only tradeoff now is: do you want to graduate in four years? Or do you want to graduate debt free? If graduating in four years is important (and it is!), then the six-month position cannot be repeated (although an additional 3-month experience is possible) and summers are now dedicated to school. But the 9 months of work looks great on the resume and the roughly $20,000 earned will go a long way in paying down debt. If stretching the time to graduation is OK, then the six-month experience can be repeated numerous times, driving that debt down towards zero.

So, leave that barista job to someone else during the semester. Ace those classes, and land that great co-op job. The results will be evident in your pocket, and on your transcript.