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School Work : Think college is one big party? Get real. Rising fees and a no-nonsense attitude : mean more time on the job, less in class.

November 16, 1994|TY TAGAMI | TIMES STAFF WRITER

What's the point of going to school, if you have no time to be a student?

The thought must cross Joe Ponce's mind as he stands amid the din of UCLA's Cooperage cafeteria, wearing a blue work apron.

He loves to play basketball, and his student fees help keep the nearby rec center courts open. "But they close before I get off," he says.

He wouldn't have time to play anyway. After serving pizza and scrubbing pots, he's got studying to do and an early class the next day.

Big deal, some say, he ought to learn the value of money. Working one's way through college is an honorable tradition.

But it's tougher than ever. While the price of burgers and books has tripled in the past two decades, minimum wage has barely doubled. Students must put in longer hours just to tread water.

Add to that the relative decline of grant funding and the burden of ballooning educational costs--UCLA fees, for example, are $4,072 for the year, more than six times the 1974 cost--and it's easy to see why some students are sinking under the load.

Still, many students say they would rather pay as they go--and forgo running for student office, debating philosophy late into the night or playing basketball. Worried about their future earning potential in an uncertain job market, they minimize debt by working long hours.

"It used to be a different ethic," says a UCLA graduate student who was a freshman in the early '80s. "Today, students are less concerned about a growing experience."

Ponce, a 21-year-old English major and aspiring teacher, rushes to the cafeteria after class and works until 8:30 p.m., then drives to the one-bedroom apartment he shares with two others to study. The alarm rings too soon for an 8 a.m. class. He takes three courses, a full load under UCLA's quarter system, logs 21 hours--at $7.50 per--in the cafeteria and wedges in six more as a tutor each week. He needs to work more, he says.

Ponce gets grants that cover most of his fees. But even though he scrimps and saves, bills outpace his income. So, like many of his peers, he has made up the difference with student loans--$10,000 worth. And, when those weren't enough, he rang up $3,000 on plastic--also a growing trend.

A junior, he is a little more than halfway to his degree.

"I don't know how many units I've got, or how many I've got to go. But I just want to get out," Ponce says in a tired voice swallowed by the clatter of the Cooperage. "I can't afford it."

The majority of UC undergraduates work, and their hours on the job have been steadily increasing. Since the UC President's Office began studying the trend in 1979, median hours have climbed more than 20%, to 17.6 per week.

Ten percent work more than 25 hours a week.

Campuses nationwide report similar findings, says Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University's Teachers College, who has studied the issue.

Public school officials are quick to point out that financial aid has risen along with fee increases. That tends to help the poorer students, but those from middle-class families receive only self-help aid--loans and work-study--not cash grants. As a result, students whose parents make $30,000 to $60,000 work longer hours--a median 18.8-hour week--than their richer or poorer peers, according to the same UC study.

An increase in such self-help aid has created a "perverse incentive" for colleges to raise tuition, says Patrick Callan, director of the California Higher Education Policy Center, an independent think tank in San Jose.

"Colleges have been trying to justify raising tuition," he says. "They're not interested in hearing how tough it is for kids to go to school."

He also believes colleges and universities have avoided studying the impact of work on students' intellectual and personal growth. "More and more, we are changing the ground rules without any discussion," he says.

But Dennis Galligani, a UC assistant vice provost, says an upswing in graduation and retention rates suggests work habits are a non-issue.

"One would assume that we have more dropouts because of the economy," Galligani says. "But the data show that students are persisting and getting through." And, he adds, loans are available to qualified students who don't want to work. "It's an individual choice."

Many struggling students, particularly those at community colleges, say they would much rather keep their full-time jobs than cut back on their hours enough to qualify for financial aid.

Darren McDowell, 27, is studying criminology at Los Angeles Southwest College while working at Northrop. He attends classes in the morning, then drives a forklift from 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. "It's kind of hectic studying," he says. But financial aid is not an option. "I make too much money."

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