The Cure for College Student Narcissism: Work

By Alex Chediak Published on December 6, 2015

We’re witnessing a epidemic of narcissism on many college campuses. The news carries daily stories about students who demand protection from anything at all disagreeable. This inward focus leads to a grievance mindset and deep-seated weakness. Too many students would rather try to remake the world in their own distorted image than to learn to deal with it as it really is.

Today’s 18-22 year olds were raised in an era of parental over-protection. First the playground was padded so they wouldn’t skin their knees. Then they received participation trophies for competitive activities in which winners (and losers) were once plainly recognized. Through middle school they were driven home because it was (supposedly) too dangerous for them to walk or ride a bicycle. In high school their parents checked and corrected their homework for them so their inflated GPAs wouldn’t take a hit. But the downside of being shielded from the sting of failure is that you don’t develop the muscle to pick yourself up off the floor. And you don’t experience the genuine confidence that only comes from earned success.

Often, the unfounded praise and needless coddling get even worse in college. Students are viewed as customers, little darlings who can do no wrong. Many professors have lowered academic standards either to free up time for research or to avoid taking a hit on their course evaluations. The result? Students are getting higher grades for less effort. In 1961, full-time college students studied twenty-four hours per week. By 2011 that figure was down to twelve hours per week. Yet average grades have never been higher. The “A” is now the most common grade, representing about 40 percent of all letter grades (and more like 50 percent at elite universities like Harvard).

All of this breeds overconfidence and thin skin. So what can parents and educators do to better prepare their charges for the inevitable vicissitudes of life? Encourage them to enter the work force while they’re in school. The number of teenagers who are employed while in school has dropped from over 40 percent in 1990 to about 25 percent today. The decline is most likely due to a weak youth labor market and the fact that wage earnings don’t go far relative to escalating college prices (tuition, fees, textbooks, etc.). Students decide it’s better (or easier) to take out loans and focus on getting good grades. But we should encourage students to work jobs year-round: part-time while classes are in session and 40-50 hours per week in the summers. Here’s why:

Working teaches the importance of effectiveness. 

Every work place has objective standards. And every worker has a boss whose own success depends on enforcing those standards. A boss needs productivity; you either deliver or you don’t. You’re either an asset or a liability. Which means a 19 year old who stays at a part-time job for more than a few months is likely to hear a few concrete ways of how he or she can improve. We all need that, especially when we’re young and have only heard how special we are. Receiving critical feedback with humility and making adjustments is good for the soul and future career, regardless of the job’s relationship to the student’s field of interest.

A professor has relatively little at stake in the performance of his students. Pay raises and tenure may depend on course evaluations, but they probably don’t depend on student outcomes. Jobs (and bosses) are unique in this respect and therefore critical for personal development. Straight A’s can’t make up for lack of work experience.

Above minimum wage earnings are possible — but require resourcefulness. 

As a 17 year old I landed a summer job painting homes for minimum wage. Then I flyered my neighborhood to land my own gigs. I was soon commanding almost twice the minimum wage — a value lesson on the upside potential of working for myself. I later did the same as a math tutor. Teaching piano, maintaining swimming pools and lifeguarding are some of the many part-time jobs that enterprising students can secure for two-to-three times the minimum wage, depending on their level of skill. The key is to leverage what you do best, meet the needs of others and do things that working professionals and busy families don’t have time to do.

Covering some college expenses through earnings is better than borrowing.

The “I can’t earn much, so I’ll just borrow” mentality misses another point: There’s a much different — and more passive — mindset when you’re borrowing for college than when you’re forking over your own hard-earned cash. A loan feels like a gift. Paying from what you’ve earned feels like an investment. I’ve noticed that working students appreciate their education more and usually have superior time-management skills. Their crowded schedules make them more focused on getting their classwork done efficiently.

Wealthier students can learn to relate to the rest of us.

Many of today’s uber-rich never leave the hothouse bubble in which they were raised. In high school they’re building a killer resume (including many hours of “service” designed primarily to impress college admissions staff), then after four years at Harvard or Yale, surrounded by mostly rich kids like themselves, they enter a lucrative career, marry a peer and repeat the cycle.[1]

Working as a waitress, a retail clerk or in some other form of hourly labor, is a chance to rub shoulders with a wide cross-section of society, to appreciate how hard blue-collar work can be, to realize you’re not as smart and wonderful as you thought. Others are smart in their own way, and you ultimately have more in common with them than you think. It’s a chance to lose that aloof sense of entitlement which characterizes many who have only known privilege.

Working while in school is not a silver bullet, and it must be balanced with a student’s academic responsibilities. Those who have to work full-time while attending college often struggle to perform well in the classroom. But the benefits of gainful employment throughout the year extend far beyond the paycheck. It’s what the paycheck signifies and produces: soul-expanding maturity, professionalism and emotional intelligence.


Alex Chediak’s book Beating the College Debt Trap: Getting a Degree Without Going Broke (Zondervan, 2015) helps students make informed decisions about how to pay less for college, earn more during college, and set themselves up for financial independence after college. Follow him on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn.


[1] William Deresiewicz, a former Yale professor, has observed that as of 2010, about a third of graduates from top universities like Harvard, Princeton, and Cornell went into financing and consulting — professions that pay handsomely. (See William Deresiewicz, Don’t Send Your Kid to the Ivy League, New Republic, July 21, 2014.)

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