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Stuart Johnson, Deseret Morning News
Wright's six-day-a-week job leaves her just enough time to squeeze in a few classes and study time.

Shaylee Wright doesn't often get to just hang out with her Brigham Young University peers. She gave up that luxury for a full-time job that yanks her from bed each morning at 4 a.m.

"I just have to do it. I just have to be really disciplined in what I do for fun and with my time," said Wright, a BYU junior who works the morning custodial shift on campus.

Even with her $8-an-hour gig, Wright still had to take out about $5,000 in loans to pay her tuition, housing and living expenses at BYU. Her six-day-a-week job leaves her just enough time to squeeze in a few classes and study time.

"It would be a lot easier without work. I could focus all my attention on classes," she said.

With annual tuition increases and higher loan interest rates, students at Utah colleges are working harder to pay their bills. At the U., 90 percent of students work at some point while they are in school and about 80 percent are working at any given time, according to annual surveys.

"As school becomes more expensive, of course it requires students to work more and probably to look at ways to modify graduate dates," said Barbara Snyder, vice president of student affairs at the U. "Simple economics tell us you can't keep going up 8 percent to 9 percent a year without profoundly impacting students' ability to pay."

That phenomenon has some school leaders concerned that hours earning a paycheck may be cutting into study time and forcing students to stretch out the time taken to earn their degrees — or even give up on them.

Especially now during a hot job market, Snyder sad she's worried students are putting school on the back burner to earn extra cash. The upswing in the economy has Snyder looking into enhanced retention efforts, particularly for sophomores and juniors who tend to put school on hold to earn some money.

While working part time often can help improve students' grades, it's the full-time work that can interfere with degree completion, she said. At the U., about 9 percent of students work full time with about 23 percent of students working 21 to 30 hours a week.

Salt Lake Community College traditionally attracts working students, with about 32 percent of students working full time and only 18 percent not working steadily.

"We know for a fact that many students who don't maintain academic momentum — they take fewer courses so they can work — tend to be the ones who don't persist to graduation," Snyder said.

In addition, the college experience can be sidelined by student work hours, added Stan Inman, director of the U.'s career services. Time spent on the job means less time for clubs, social events and study groups.

"The whole concept of student engagement and making sure you're prepared to succeed in the classroom can sometimes be in competition with the hours they put into employment," Inman said. "It's got to be a real balance."

Achieving that balance is a struggle for many students who want to work toward financial independence, Inman said. Many Utah students also face the additional burden of having families while attending school.

And with a recent increase in student loan interest rates, students are wary of getting into too much debt. As a general rule, Inman said, he suggests students use a mix of loans and work hours.

A small amount of loan debt can be helpful, because it allows students to stay in school full time to get to graduation and to a full-time salary faster, he said.

BYU student Cameron Harr worked for all but five months of his college life and also took out about $14,000 in student loans. That combination dragged out his time in school a bit but allowed him to pay off his loans quickly after graduation and get some work experience while still in school.

"Students need to be less reliant on parents and other people to put them through college," Harr said. "It's their responsibility."

Working to get through college can help students focus and value their education, said Janet Felker, dean of student planning and support at SLCC.

"Students who work bring life experience to the college. There's a lot of opportunities to apply what they're learning in the world setting. There's some serendipity in all of that," she said.

Inman said he tries to help students get the most of their work experience, urging them to choose career-oriented jobs. Ideally, students should be testing out careers they are interested in and then culminating their work experience with an internship before graduation.

"We want students to have an experience that's going to reflect some opportunity in the workplace. It's going to confirm their ideas about career fields," he said.

Inman also suggests students try to find jobs with a company that offers tuition reimbursement for courses or to find out if school credit is available for certain jobs.

E-mail: estewart@desnews.com