Tips for balancing full-time work with online study

Are you considering pursuing an online education? While online learning opportunities have been steadily increasing over the past few years, the COVID-19 pandemic ushered in a whole new world of options. Instead of being restricted to in-person classrooms and set schedules, students can now use online program and course options to pursue higher education, even while working full-time and balancing other priorities.

Here is a look at why working full-time while studying can be beneficial and how students manage to build a career and get a degree at the same time.

Online learning dominates the industry

In fall 2019, roughly 6 million students took at least one online course. By fall 2020, however, that number had skyrocketed to nearly 12 million. That figure accounts for around 75% of the undergraduate population in the United States, and nearly half of those students only took online courses. This increase in undergraduate students attending online classes came after 84% of students reported in the 2019-2020 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study that all or some of their classes had been moved to fully online instruction following the onset of the pandemic.

The number of postgraduate students enrolled in distance education classes was equally high, with fall 2020 seeing 2.2 million students (equal to about 71%) taking at least one online course and 52% of them taking online courses exclusively. This is an increase from 1.3 million students (41%) and 33%, respectively, in 2019.

On their own, these numbers might be interesting but perhaps not overly impressive. However, in 2018 alone, nearly 70% of online students were professionals working while studying. In fact, the average age of online students in 2018 was 32 years old.

As you might expect, this means that a significant number of online students, whether they are traditional students fresh out of high school or experienced adults, are working full-time. One report out of Georgetown University in 2022 found that more than 75% of the university’s graduate students and around 40% of their undergraduate students worked full-time (measured as 30 hours of work a week or more). Add to this the fact that nearly 20% of those working students have children, and it should be clear that today’s online learners have a lot on their plate.

Benefits of working full-time while studying

Before we dive into how students can stay on track while working and studying online, let’s talk about why increasing numbers of students are adding full-time employment to their college experience. What are the benefits of working and attending school on a full-time basis?

  1. Less student debt

One of the biggest issues facing today’s graduates is student loan debt. Education is expensive in the United States, and not everyone comes from an independently wealthy household. As a result, many students are faced with a tough choice: take out student loans to support their studies or work full time to cover tuition and expenses. More and more students are opting for the latter, which means they take out fewer or smaller loans and owe less money when they graduate.

Without the pressure of massive amounts of debt hanging over their heads, students who choose to work while studying are not only saving their future selves some worry and stress but are also often giving themselves peace of mind in the moment, too.

  1. Professional freedom

When students graduate with immense amounts of student loan debt, they often jump at the first well-paying job offer they come across. This isn’t always the best step for their career, however, and some students find themselves struggling through work rather than pursuing something about which they are passionate.

When you work full-time and can cover your own expenses, you have less incentive to dive into unfulfilling work. You can spend your time searching for the job that most closely suits your professional goals rather than settling for one that will enable you to make ends meet, even if you hate what you’re doing.

Remember that graduating is only half of the battle. The next milestone in your career will be finding the job that allows you to use your skills and meet your personal and professional goals. After you earn your Master of Science in Nursing, for example, you still need to find a position that allows you to not only use what you’ve learned but also affords you the opportunity to keep studying and improving yourself professionally and personally.

  1. Easier adjustment to post-graduate life

Students who attend university on a full-time basis without working often have a difficult time adjusting to life post-graduation. When you are used to having breaks between classes and long breaks throughout the year, suddenly being constricted to a strict schedule with little free time can be jarring.

Students who worked full-time while studying, on the other hand, are used to functioning with little free time and understand how to balance their personal lives with work. In fact, many of these students have more free time after graduating than they ever did while studying.

Working full-time while studying isn’t an easy task, and although it takes hard work to complete any college degree, graduating while working and raising children is especially difficult. How are students finding success with their online studies, even in the face of external challenges, and how are they balancing working full time and distance learning? Let’s take a look!

Tips for working full time while studying online

We know that more students than ever before are opting to study online while they work, but how do they find enough time in their days to complete coursework while working? Here are some tips to help students understand how to get the most out of both their education and their career.

  1. Decide between distance learning and online classes

While the terms “online classes” and “distance learning” are often used interchangeably (and are often lumped together during surveys), there is a minor but significant difference. Distance learning requires students to attend classes virtually but in real time, while online courses and programs typically allow students to study on their own schedule without the need to attend live lectures. Which of these is right for you?

For many people balancing work and study, online courses and programs that offer flexible hours are often the best choice. Traditional distance learning can be a bit more limiting and may make it difficult to work full-time hours as sometimes classes will meet in the middle of the day, interrupting work shifts. This choice mainly comes down to personal preference, however, and if you have a job with hours that allow you to attend virtual classes in real time while still working enough hours to maintain full-time employment, you have the luxury of making the decision that best suits your study style.

  1. Schedule your learning

Full-time work requires students to follow a strict schedule, but did you know that online study does the same? School cannot be something that you simply cram into your schedule when you have free time. It is imperative to create some kind of structure for yourself when studying online and to stick to that schedule at all times.

There are a few reasons for this, but one of the most pressing is that studying online can be easily procrastinated. This is especially true of programs with flexible schedules that do not require real-time instruction and attendance.

Instead of taking an “out of sight, out of mind” approach to online learning, create a schedule that includes study time as well as your work hours. Make sitting down and studying purposefully a habit and treat this time like you would your job. Just as you can’t just stop working in the middle of your day because something catches your attention, you cannot suddenly stop studying because something more interesting arises. Stick to the schedule and build a routine.

  1. Create a study space

When you study is important, but so is where you study. Some places are more conducive to studying than others, and while it might be tempting to simply curl up in bed with your computer when completing online coursework, it is important to have a dedicated study space. This can be difficult to find if you are living in a small room or apartment, but the good news is that you do not need a dedicated room in which you can study. Instead, creating a study space is all about working with what you have and studying purposefully, as briefly mentioned above.

What kind of space do you have at your disposal? Your study space can be as simple as a place on the floor in your bedroom or as elaborate as a home office. Many students find it easiest to stick to a space in their room and simply set up an organized study environment wherever they have room. This helps limit distractions and allows for comfortable learning while still ensuring that students treat their study sessions seriously. Pull out your school supplies, make sure you have space to take notes, and set out anything you might need while working, such as a bottle of water or tissues, and start studying.

  1. Be honest with yourself

Studying online can be an incredible boon to students, especially those who want to work full time while learning, but it is not always a natural fit. Some people just aren’t wired to take to online coursework naturally. From finding that their home or office environment is always full of distractions to pushing coursework off to the last minute, some students simply need more help than others to complete online programs.

The good news is that even if you are not a natural fit for internet-based study, you can still find success while studying online. The trick is to make sure that you honestly assess and address your unique needs. If you know that you often procrastinate, for example, creating a schedule will be imperative to your success. If you find staying engaged to be a struggle, you might need to build your study sessions around frequent short breaks or include a multimedia element.

Be honest with yourself about your strengths and weaknesses, and work with them rather than against them.

  1. Be honest with your loved ones 

Time is finite, and there is nothing you can do about that fact. When you are doing something as arduous as working full-time while pursuing a degree, you just don’t have a lot of free time. That means that not only will you need to schedule some down time for yourself, but you will also need to be honest with your loved ones about your schedule. Some weeks might be less busy than others, and you might not be able to attend get-togethers if you need to complete an assignment or study for a test.

Be clear about your schedule and focus on finding enough time to work, study, and sleep before you try to add in extra engagements or obligations. Sharing your schedule as you set it for the week is a good way to keep loved ones on the same page and is often easier than simply telling them you are busy. Allowing them to see how much time you spend working and studying can help them be more supportive of your time.

  1. Make self-care a priority 

Although you might not have a lot of free time when working full time and studying, it is important to make some room in your schedule for a self-care routine. Taking even just an extra 20 minutes before bed to unwind and do something you enjoy can help keep stress levels down and promote healthy rest. You don’t need to find hours every day to relax, but there should be a moment of self-care in your schedule every day.

What do you think about working full-time and studying online? The combination is a great one for many students, but make sure to keep our tips in mind when setting your schedule!