Unfortunately, there is no “easy” answer to the question of how many hours a college student should work.
Maintaining balance in your life will be challenging if you exceed 20 hours of weekly employment in addition to being a full-time student. This is the reason why many colleges limit their work-study students to 20 (or even 12) hours of weekly work.
Students often underestimate the detrimental effects of stress on their mental and physical health. Be sure to consider this before signing up for demanding responsibilities at work and school.
Obviously, some people have family situations and financial strains that cause them to work longer hours while also attending class. In those cases, you should make every attempt to pack your work hours during the weekend and then focus on school from Monday to Friday.
Lastly, don’t forget to factor in the rigor of your courses and the relative importance of your grades.
Quick Answer: How Many Hours Should a College Student Work?
There is no one-size-fits-all answer for the number of hours a college student should work. However, research suggests that working a part-time job during college can help a student gain skills, learn time management tactics, and also build a resume.
The maximum number of hours you should work depends on the difficulty of your major, the number of credit hours you are taking, the importance you place on grades, and your own time management ability.
If you insist upon a simple answer, here goes:
- Full-time college students should limit outside work to 15 hours per week under typical circumstances.
- Non-traditional students, such as those with families to support, may exceed 20 weekly hours of employment but should do so with caution. This excess workload can pose a threat to mental and physical health.
- Part-time students commonly work 30+ hours at a job, but they should remember that there is an elevated risk of failing courses if sufficient emphasis is not placed on classwork and studying.
Incoming freshmen should start slowly and cautiously when choosing a part-time job, rather than assuming they can handle heavy course loads in addition to long hours at a job.
If it is your first semester at a new college, try to limit your part-time workload to 12 hours to ensure that you can focus on your education.
Although there is no “cap” on hours worked under the Federal Work-Study Program, many colleges limit a student to no more than 20 working hours while school is in session.
Lastly, don’t underestimate the risk of damaging your GPA and/or failing courses by spending too much time working outside of school. There are many examples of students that focused too much on work and not enough on school — only to fail courses, drop out, and leave college with a heavy financial debt.
Full-time vs. Part-time Students
One important piece of the discussion is that college courses, themselves, are “work.” A student might not receive a paycheck, but they are working nonetheless.
Before the discussion can proceed much further, we must also make a distinction between full-time and part-time students.
Definitions vary from one college to the next, but generally a student is considered “full-time” if he or she is enrolled in 12 or more credits in a given semester. Some people use 15 credits as an “average” for a full-time student, since this is the courseload required to graduate in a typical four year time frame.
Full-time students should generally cap their outside work schedules at 20 (or even 15) hours per week. For challenging semesters, this number might even need to be reduced.
Part-time students often can work more hours outside of school, but there is still a lot of variation depending on circumstance. One “part-time student” might be taking a single class, while another might be taking 11 credits of challenging classes yet still be considered “part-time.”
It is important to understand your own skills and life situation — and adjust accordingly.
- Students that are married and have kids to feed will probably be more willing to work long hours to pay the bills.
- College athletes might be so focused on their sport that even 10 hours of part-time work would be impossible.
- Still other students may be taking 18 credits of challenging engineering courses and be too busy to take a part-time job.
Remember Your Time is Limited
The (antiquated) rule of thumb is that you should allow 2 hours of outside study time for every 1 credit hour of courses.
This means that the typical college student enrolled in 15 credits will need to allow 30 hours of study time in addition to the time spent on campus. Already, this brings us to 45 hours of direct schoolwork each week. This is the equivalent of a full-time job.
Once you include the time spent commuting, many students need 50+ hours just to focus on their coursework. For students taking 17+ hours of credits, the time commitment becomes even larger.
My best recommendation: remember that it is very challenging to maintain your physical and mental health when your work-related obligations exceed 60 hours.
Once you factor in time to attend classes, sleep, study, commute, cook, and clean, it is challenging to maintain a balanced lifestyle when attending classes full-time and working more than 20 hours weekly.
I recognize that certain situations will cause students to exceed these recommendations. Family and financial concerns often force a student to compromise in some fashion, and clearly your family is always the most important thing.
Just remember that need to choose what part of your lifestyle needs to be sacrificed. Working 60+ hour weeks (combined between school and employment) will force you to compromise on sleep, socializing, or some other area.
Texas A&M International has an excellent guide that discusses the time commitments of a college student. In the guide, there is a suggestion that a full-time student taking 14+ credit hours actually shouldn’t work outside of school at all.
How Hard is Your Major? How Important are Your Grades?
It is also important to factor in the relative difficulty of your major and the importance of your class grades.
For some engineering and architecture students, it may be impossible to work a job while also taking a full-time course load. And by attempting to add more responsibility with a part-time job, you may be increasing your odds of failing courses and having to leave college without the valuable degree you desire.
At the same time, these students may also be able to tolerate more ‘B’ and ‘C’ grades (rather than straight ‘A’s), since the degree matters more than the GPA.
This is often the case for professions wherein obtaining the license is more important than building a resume for graduate or professional school. If you are a licensed engineer or architect, you will be able to find job offers regardless of your GPA.
Alternatively, pre-law and pre-med students will need to place more emphasis on making ‘A’ grades rather than simply getting the degree. It’s not that these courses are harder/easier or more/less important, but the GPA is going to be important when applying for law schools or medical schools.
Federal Work-Study & Colleges With Hour Restrictions
Although we can’t determine the exact number of hours a college student should work, we can look for clues.
Some guidance is offered by universities that participate in the Federal Work-Study Program.
While there is no “cap” on the number of hours that a student can work under the Federal Work-Study Program (FWSP), many colleges choose to place a limit on maximum hours.
Many colleges limit students to no more than 20 hours weekly when participating in the FWSP. Other colleges are even more strict, placing a cap at 12 hours weekly for full-time students.
This guidance seems to suggest that colleges recommend full-time students not to exceed 20 hours of weekly employment.
At some schools, the financial aid office will “consider your class schedule and academic progress” when placing a limit on working hours.
Federal Student Aid, an office of the Department Education, advises a school to “determine the number of hours a student is allowed to work based on the student’s financial need and on how the combination of work and study hours will affect the student’s health and academic progress.”
It isn’t possible to find a definitive answer for the number of hours a college student should work.
Maintaining a balanced life is crucial, and students shouldn’t underestimate the impact of stress on their mental and physical health.
At the same time, students with family and financial demands may be willing to compromise on sleep and social lives in order to provide for their family while pursuing higher education.
If you are looking for a rule of thumb, try to limit your employment to 15 hours weekly if you are a full-time student. Anyone that exceeds 20 hours weekly will need to compromise in some area, whether it is cooking, cleaning, exercising, or sleeping.
Don’t forget to consider the difficulty of your courses, and whether you need to make straight ‘A’s or if a 2.8 GPA will be “good enough.”
And if you can pack your work hours into the weekends and spend weeknights focusing on school, your chances of succeeding will be higher.