If there is one universally understood truth among college students, it is that tuition is not cheap—and neither is on-campus housing. For many students who put themselves through college on-campus employment is their primary option, and sometimes their only option.

Some students do not have transportation to commute to an off-campus job, which can lead to incurring staggering amounts of debt as school bills pile up if an on-campus job can’t be found. So the question is: are there really enough jobs to go around?

According to the 2014-15 URI Common Data Set, students were awarded more than $1 million in federal work-study dollars in their financial aid packages last year. No public data is available from the university on how many of these award dollars were actually paid out.

Some students claim that there is a strong bias in on-campus employment in favor of students eligible for these federally funded work-study programs, leaving everyone else out of luck. At the time of writing, four out of the 20 job listings made public on the University’s student employment web page are explicitly reserved for work-study eligible students. Many listings ask for students to specify their eligibility outright in the application form, but this does not necessarily imply a preference. A few others are restricted to certain majors or students with specific experience, but a majority of the listings are open to all URI students.

In an effort to find out how many jobs are really available for students in our little corner of Rhode Island, I spoke with a staff member at Butterfield Dining Hall named Sharon. She told me she deals with students looking for employment on a regular basis. She insisted that there is no preference in hiring given to students eligible for federal work-study.

However, she did have some interesting observations on the habits of the students working in the newly renovated hall. Most notably, she stated that although they are never significantly under or over-staffed, early morning positions are the hardest to fill, and there are often openings at those times. She said that many students quickly become overwhelmed with full-time class schedules and a 20-hour work week, so turnover is quite high. Despite this high turnover rate, Sharon said applications peak in the second week of the semester and taper off after that.  

Perhaps there is not so much of a shortage of jobs as a shortage of student motivation. Maybe it is a difference between the reality of the on-campus job market (and, more broadly, the job market as a whole) and the average student’s perception of it.

Today’s 18-year-old college student entered adolescence just as America’s worst economic recession in decades was taking its toll on the economy and the job prospects of young people. Despite the cynicism they might have already developed—and probably with good reason—maybe the college student’s chances at landing a job are better than he or she thinks.