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When Henry Fountain enrolled at Temple University last year, he was working two jobs: 40 hours per week with his local government during summer break and 23 hours per week as a busboy at a restaurant during the school year. It was an arrangement he had to balance for years while in high school, but a few weeks into his freshman year at Temple, Fountain quit the restaurant job.

And the university gave him $4,000 for doing so.

“It was a little bit of a burden, going to school and working,” Fountain, a sophomore majoring in business, said. “I thought I could do both, and I was doing both, but I was so stretched. So I quit the job at the restaurant altogether to focus more on schoolwork. I was able to see a dramatic difference.”

Fountain is part of the first cohort of Temple students to enroll in the university’s Fly in 4 program. The initiative, now in its second year, requires students to sign an agreement promising that, among other conditions, they’ll meet with an academic adviser at least once per semester, register for classes that are consistent with their academic plan, notify an adviser immediately if a required course is not available and complete at least 30 credits per year.

The goal is to graduate those students in four years, saving them money in the process. If a student meets all of the requirements but does not graduate on time, the university promises to pay for the remaining course work. Nearly 90 percent of last year’s freshman class signed the pledge, as did 93 percent of this year’s freshman class. About 600 more sophomores than last year are now on track to graduate in four years, the university asserts, and if they stay on that path, they’ll save a combined $15 million in college costs.

On its end of the agreement, the university promises to provide students with the resources they need to meet the four-year goal. For the 500 neediest students in each class, that includes providing them with $2,000 per semester if they agree to work no more than 15 hours a week off campus.

Neil Theobald, president of Temple, said when he first came to the university in 2012, he was troubled to learn some students were working 40 hours a week while trying to graduate in four years.

“Four-year graduation has always been a huge priority for me, and as I went around campus, talking to students who were graduating in five, six years, I asked why it is taking so long,” Theobald said. “The answer invariably was, ‘Well, I have to work.’ If you’re working 40 hours a week at Bed, Bath and Beyond, that’s 40 hours a week you can’t spend on school. If you’re working full time, you can’t go to school full time. It’s counterintuitive, but, long term, it can actually cost you more to work while you’re in college.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly half of traditional-aged students work while enrolled in college. More than 20 percent work between 20 and 34 hours per week, and 8 percent work full time.

"There is clear evidence that employment plays a large role in degree progress for low-income and first-generation students," Kevin Kruger, president of NASPA: Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, said while praising the Temple program. "Low-income students who work more than twenty hours have much lower degree progress and completion rates than those students who work less than twenty hours."

Several studies have found that students who work 10 to 15 hours per week are actually more likely to earn higher grades and graduate than those who don't work at all. But working more than 20 hours per week can have the opposite effect, research -- including a 2009 study based on data from the National Survey of Student Engagement -- suggests, negatively impacting students’ grades and chances of graduating.

"In general, students working more than four hours per weekday, despite total number of hours worked per week, were found to achieve lower mean GPAs than students who worked fewer hours or did not work at all," a review of research on the issue, published by the Association of College Unions International, concluded. 

The National Student Financial Wellness Study, released by Ohio State University's Center for the Study of Student Life, found that 18 percent of students who were taking extra time to complete their degree said the delay was caused by taking fewer classes in order to work more. About half of students said they work part-time during the academic year and nearly 17 percent reported working full-time.

More than 35 percent of students at two-year public institutions said they work full-time. About 47 percent of students who work reported doing so, on average, more than 20 hours during the academic year.

With the grant component of Fly in 4, Theobald said the university will allow students to work 15 hours and then provide enough financial support to cover what a student would typically make if he or she were working 30 hours per week. Theobald said some on campus -- including members of the Board of Trustees -- balked at the idea when he first proposed it. The initial apprehension, he said, came from those critics being “old guys and gals who remember working their way through school.” That’s not as easy to do with today’s college costs, Theobald said.

“There was some pushback,” he said. “This was thought of as, ‘You’re paying kids not to work.’ And I had to be very clear. We’re not paying them to go home and play video games. We’re paying them to free them up from this need to earn money, so they can reallocate that time to course work and to staying on track to graduate.”

Fountain said he's been doing just that. As he enters the second semester of his sophomore year, he said he has earned 46 credits and remains on track to graduate in four years. He's hoping to attend law school and become a trial lawyer.

“I’m understanding material better and I have more time to work on course work and studying,” Fountain said. “I’ve been able to almost forget about my financial situation and really just focus on my schoolwork.”

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