Are the lessons learned by working your way through college worth the cost?

I didn’t exactly work my way through college in the way that this recent New York Times piece discusses, but it was close. Though I graduated from college with debt, it was less than a one year’s worth of tuition, and it was primarily the result of my need to student teach during the final semester of my college tenure.

Unfortunately, that final semester turned out to be quite expensive.

With the exception of that final semester, however, I worked my way through college, and I would argue that I learned more from that experience than if my parents had paid for my education.

While attending college, first at Manchester Community College for three years and then at Trinity College and Saint Joseph’s University for another three, I worked 45 hours a week managing a McDonald’s restaurant.

It was not easy to squeeze in that many hours into a full class load, but I managed. I worked on Monday, Wednesday and Friday from 4:30 AM until 1:00 PM before heading over to the college for afternoon and evening classes. I also worked from 4:30 AM until 2:00 PM on Saturday and Sunday, bringing my total number of hours each week to at least 45.

I also tutored in the Trinity College Writing Center for 10 hours a week, mostly on Tuesday and Thursday but also during some evenings as well, especially near the end of the semester when final papers were due. 

In 1997, just as I was beginning my first year at Trinity, I also launched my DJ company and began performing at weddings throughout Connecticut. During my final two years of college, I was booked for 23 and 45 weddings respectively. 

All of this was necessary in order to pay my bills and defray the cost of school. I paid for my three years of community college without any financial assistance, but my academic achievement and participation in student government resulted in a two-thirds scholarship from Trinity College (and by extension, Saint Joseph’s University).

I continued to work in order to pay for the remaining tuition, in addition to books, college fees and living expenses (I owned a home off-campus). I attended both schools simultaneously and ultimately earned a Bachelor’s in English and a teaching certificate in elementary education.

It was only during my final semester of college, which was comprised entirely of student teaching, that I was forced to take on a student loan. While that loan was considerable, it was a tiny fraction of my total education cost.

The six years that I attended college while managing a McDonald’s restaurant and running my business were some of the toughest years of my life, but I came away from that experience with a work ethic, an understanding of the important of efficiency and a level of self confidence that I would not possess had my parents put me through school. In fact, for all the classroom learning that I achieved in that time, I believe that I learned the most from having to pay my own way and support myself.

Whenever I hear a friend complain about the stress of their job or the difficulty of the work, I think back on those six years of college and smile.

I managed a fast food restaurant to profitability, launched a small business, and graduated in the top 5% of my college class. It was not because I am smart or or gifted or lucky. I worked incredibly hard.

Nothing since then has ever been more difficult.

I am not as laid back as some people believe. I simply know how much harder life can be.

Knowing all this, I can’t help but wonder:

What should I do when my children are ready to attend college?

If I am able, should I send them off to school without any concern about tuition costs? Or should I require them to work as I did, in order to learn the same lessons as me?

One of the cruelest things ever said to me was spoken by my best friend as he was graduating college and I was preparing to move into my car. He said, “It’s a shame you didn’t go to college right out of high school and do things the traditional way. You would’ve loved taking classes and living on campus. You were made for that stuff. You would’ve been a great college student.”

He didn’t say it to hurt me, but it still hurts to this day.

While I have great appreciation for my path to my college degrees, I never had the opportunity to attend college with people my own age and live on campus. College began humbly for me when I was 24 years old with an evening class called (unbelievable if you know my history) On Death and Dying. At that point I owned a home and was on my way to being married.

Living in the dorms was not a possibility.

How might my life be different had I experienced a more traditional four years of college like almost every one of my friends and colleagues?

Is the lesson learned by working your way through college worth the cost?

I’m still not sure.