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College students taking in some sort of income is not only a good idea, but often a necessity. According to Forbes, almost 14 million U.S. college students work at least part-time during school. But how much is too much when it comes to college working hours? Finding your college work-life balance means doing what you need to do to pay for school without sacrificing the education you’re trying to attain through it all. Whether you’re putting yourself through school or just working for the experience and extra spending money, there has to be balance as working too much can strain your initial goal of a degree. 

Robert Leppek, Co-Owner of Central Valley Engineering and Asphalt, funded his own college education at California State University, Sacramento. While earning his engineering degree, Leppek worked as an engineer in training for the County of Sacramento. Working 20-30 hours per week during the school semesters and 40 hours per week over the summer, Leppek was able to graduate without any debt. Of course, college was overall cheaper when Leppek was attending, who graduated in 1992, but the same concepts apply: work smarter, not harder. Maintaining your finances is a necessity, but so is prioritizing your education.

Leppek explained that soon after he started school, he was connected to his job at the County of Sacramento through a fraternity brother who was graduating and moving on. Leppek was able to take his spot, which was a flexible, hourly position. He explained that his boss was very supportive, and told him, “basically when you’re here you get paid, and you can work as much as you want or as little as you want,” said Leppek.

Leppek said he worked 4-5 hours in the morning, then went to his classes in the afternoon, and came back to work afterwards, staying at work from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. During this time, he was able to work on homework.

“I was doing a lot of the same engineering work at school that I was learning about. I did it at work so it coincided,” said Leppek.

Although Leppek worked much more than the average college student, he felt he had a sufficient balance between work, school, and other aspects of life, due to the flexibility of his job and overlap ability. Leppek’s work paid off not only financially, but also after he finished his degree. The county offered him a full-time position, which he took and worked in for many years.

“If you can find an internship or something that you like that’s the same as your studies, it will benefit you for sure,” Leppek remarked.

Leppek’s advice to students who are in a similar position as him revolves around prioritization and time management.

“You’ve got to learn how to prioritize to get things done. Schoolwork is always the first thing that people want to get done, but you also need money to survive,” said Leppek.

In Leppek’s experience, the first priority as far as timing was school, then work, then the fun that he believes is necessary to the college experience.

“Get your school in, work in between, and then you’ll decide how much fun you can have,” said Leppek. “Try and mix as much work, fun, and school as possible. College experience is the most important thing for everybody.”

While he said sometimes loans are necessary, it is better to take some time off to work and stabilize yourself financially than to find yourself with large amounts of debt. Other options include having a mix of both work and loans or evaluating the rate you’ll be able to pay off your loans based on reasonable career expectations post-college.

While Leppek never complained about his situation and saw the benefits of it, he wanted things to be slightly different for his children. As a parent, Leppek did not want his children to be completely on their own when they went to college. He and his wife opened a 529 plan when their first child was born. He encourages other parents to do what they can for their children’s education as well.

“There are ways, there are avenues of saving money so your kids can go to college. I would recommend saving as much as you can for your kids to make sure that they do get a college experience instead of having to work full-time and missing some of those college experiences,” said Leppek.

If you are able, colleges typically recommend working 10-15 hours per week with a full class schedule. While this is ideal, if you need to work more, there are ways to create a balance. Working on your time management, prioritization, and taking out loans if needed are all ways to create some space for yourself. And of course, if you are able to land a job like Leppek’s that both allows you to work on your studies during work time as well as furthers your education and career prospects, this will be much easier and more beneficial. Overall, the idea of putting your schoolwork first is key, as you need to be successful in your classes to make it all worth it. Whether this means you need to work 15 hours a week and take out some loans, or are able to work 20+ hours, you have to prioritize your education. Find a schedule that works for you and allows you to pay for as much of your education as possible, but also allows you to put your schoolwork first.