Earn more, learn more

College students bypass menial campus jobs for work that develops their skills - and pays more.

Before Erin Iams landed her campus job, she had to survive a professional interview and beat out 24 other applicants. Now, instead of clocking hours at a library checkout desk or a cafeteria steam table, the college junior is helping professors study the role of business classes in a liberal arts setting. She'll put in about 10 hours a week until she graduates and make $10 an hour - nearly double what most students earn at Southwestern University, a small campus in Georgetown, Texas.

"My best friend works in one of those jobs where she sits at a table for hours at a time, and she gets to do schoolwork," says Ms. Iams, who hopes to own a business someday. "For me, this job is great. It gives me the opportunity to be engaged ... and to feel like I'm accomplishing something."

The Student Associate Program started with 12 employees this semester at Southwestern, and it's expected to grow with support from a Mellon Foundation grant. It's the first replication of an idea born at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tenn., where 40 students now earn top dollar for jobs that come with extra demands as well as extra benefits - including mentoring and training linked to their career aspirations.

With so much consternation about the high price of college, the redesign of campus jobs helps both sides of the equation - by saving schools the cost of hiring more full-time staff and by enabling students to earn more while they learn. Many young people have high-level skills to offer, especially in the field of technology. And increasingly, students want more from their work than a simple paycheck, experts say.

"Most campuses are moving in that direction," says Heather Dunn, assistant director of student employment at Dickinson College in Carlisle, Pa. "It requires a change in culture ... but most are focusing on making sure that the educational experience is further validated by employment experience."

At Ms. Dunn's campus, more student jobs require interviews than in years past. Job titles include "senior level computer consultant" and "sustainability intern" (a student charged with improving recycling and energy conservation).

The admissions department used to hire student workers as tour guides, but now that's a volunteer position. Instead, students are paid to take on marketing and publicity research. Dunn estimates that at least half of campus jobs go above and beyond the old-school image of a student filing papers, answering phones, or running errands.

One hope is that as more students earn higher wages, they can better balance school and work. Students who work 10 hours per week or less tend to have slightly higher grades, while students who work full time have lower grades and drop out at a higher rate, according to a 2001 study by UPromise, a company in Needham, Mass., that helps families save and pay for college.

Job perspectives change

Rhodes President William Troutt was looking for ways to live up to the cost- cutting advice he doled out as chairman of the National Commission on the Cost of Higher Education in the late 1990s. The college had already started saving energy and outsourcing certain tasks, but personnel costs were high.

At the same time, conversations with older alumni revealed that many remembered campus jobs as essential learning experiences. Current students, on the other hand, often felt their talents were being wasted on menial tasks.

So Mr. Troutt and Bob Johnson, dean of information services, looked for ideas on other campuses. One inspiration was Berea College in Kentucky, where every student works 10 to 15 hours a week.

The goal was not to transform Rhodes that dramatically, but to see what work students could do most effectively and what support the college should offer.

In the resulting Student Associate Program, the work of four students is the equivalent of one full-time staffer - but it costs only $16,000 to pay all four instead of $40,000, plus benefits, Mr. Johnson estimates.

Rhodes expects to hire 60 student associates next year and to continue to gradually expand. "It's part of a larger aim of the college - trying to tie student assistance to some kind of powerful learning experience," Troutt says.

Another opportunity is the Service Scholars Program. Students are paid for jobs in community nonprofits, such as after-school programs or homeless shelters. They meet with mentors and academic advisers so they can draw connections to what they're learning in class.

Learning experience

English major Elizabeth Brandon just finished a story for Rhodes College's alumni magazine based on interviews with 10 alumni authors.

"It was great experience - a lot of them are in the line of work I want to pursue," she says.

She's also learned marketable skills such as proofreading and editing. The senior says that when she first started working at the magazine for 15 hours a week, she wondered how she'd fit it in, but "this teaches you to economize your time. It teaches you how you're going to have to be in the real world."

Ms. Brandon is the second student associate to work with mentor Martha Shepard, editor of the alumni magazine.

"They came in ready to go, asking for this job," Ms. Shepard says. "With the talent of these students, we don't have to hire as many freelancers."

When Brandon's predecessor graduated last year, she stepped right into a job as managing editor of a local magazine.

The learning curve for these jobs gives students a head start on approaching problem-solving in a broader way, says Prof. Mary Grace Neville at Southwestern, who is supervising Iams on the business-curriculum project.

"We want her to help us think about what we don't know yet," Professor Neville says. "One of the best things that's happening is that we're developing a relationship where she's willing to come early and say, 'OK, here's what I tried, help me understand what to do next...' rather than the student response, which is to bulldoze down the path and try to make the teacher happy, and then move on to the next step."

The value of such relationships is one reason the school requires student associates to make a two-year commitment.

"For one semester, it's not worth it," Neville says. "But the trajectory that we're on feels really good. [Erin's] becoming a member of our team."

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