It’s 7 a.m. Cynthia Benson has just woken up, and she is getting ready for her day. She will likely not be home again until 8 or 9 p.m., so she packs all of her meals ahead of time. After she drops her daughter off at her father’s house, she heads to her classes beginning at 9:30 a.m. at the University of Arkansas.
Benson’s days regularly push 17 hours. She works four jobs to support herself and her two-year-old daughter, in addition to paying for an education.
The problem that arises for college students like Benson is that a college degree is essential to attain a higher-paying job. High school graduates only earn approximately 62 percent of that of college graduates, according to a Pew Research Center survey. To make ends meet until graduation, students must rely on hourly jobs to cover bills and the cost of attending college.
Benson, 22, works 16 hours each week, on top of attending school full-time. She teaches two fitness classes, waits tables for $2.33 per hour, and writes for the school newspaper for about $20 each week. Stacking those jobs enables her to provide for herself and her daughter, and pay the difference after scholarships are applied to the cost of her education.
She is a part of a trend of an increasing number of students paying for college expenses on their own, except she has the added expense of caring for her child.
In Arkansas, 4.3 percent of all employees work more than one job, according to a 2010 survey conducted by the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“If I could quit working one of my jobs I could have more down time at home with my daughter,” Benson said. But she said she is making just enough to get by.
To balance working four jobs, Benson developed a system to help her meet all of her obligations. For example, she sets specific times for spending time with her daughter and for homework. To manage her time, she makes an hour-by-hour agenda for each day.
“The hardest thing for me is finding time to clean my house or put laundry away–little things like that,” Benson said.
When she isn’t at school or work, she is at ballet classes or rehearsals. Classes and rehearsal take up a large portion of the little free time she has, and push her nights back to 8:45 p.m. After she puts her daughter to bed, she is finally able to work on homework.
Benson said she looks forward to graduating college and getting a job that will allow her to focus on dance and her daughter.
“Because of my obligations and lack of money, I don’t really ever do anything with friends or spend money on ‘fun’ things,” Benson said.
She is on the right track, according to several studies conducted by Pew Research Center in 2013. College graduates say that college is worth the investment, and college-educated millenials are more likely to see themselves as having a career or being on board to attain one.
Often, in order to juggle school and work, sacrifices must be made. In Benson’s case, it’s her free time.
Lucy Harris, 20, is another Arkansan from Little Rock who had to make sacrifices in order to pay the bills. Between working two jobs at just above the minimum wage and going to school full time, it just wasn’t possible to do it all. Harris had to take time off from school – and give up her prestigious Donaghey scholarship at the University of Arkansas in Little Rock – to make time to work to pay bills.
“I ran out of money a lot, and the stress from not being able to make ends meet almost failed me out of school,” Harris said. “Now I’m working two jobs trying to get back into school.”
From an economic perspective, it’s vastly accepted that attending college is a worthwhile endeavor, said Salar Jahedi, a UA economics professor.
It isn’t as simple as comparing the salaries of college graduates and those who only completed high school, Jahedi said.
In theory, there are a few ways researchers have tried to measure the cost of attending college, Jahedi said. Computing the benefits using the above method, of course, reveals that college is a great investment. But this is method is incorrect, he said. Often, those students who attend college have skills that would increase their salaries even if they did not attend college.
“Thus far, it appears that college is still a good investment on average than not attending college,” Jahedi said.
This won’t be true for every graduate, however, as the price of attending college continues to rise and the benefits remain constant, Jahedi said.
Benson said that despite her hectic schedule, she is happy to have her daughter, and she remains optimistic.
“For now, I’m just working and doing the best I can in every area of my life,” Benson said.