Is Eleven Years Old Too Young To Be Working Your Way Through College?

If you find yourself at the crossroads of Route 209 and Route 534 in Kresgeville, Pennsylvania, stop by the Kresgeville Delicatessan. You may be lucky enough to meet 11-year-old Olivia, who works behind the counter helping her mom. Just in front of the cash register is an attractive display of handcrafted bracelets for sale. At just $3 each, they are a great value. Carefully made and tastefully done, each is a unique combination of small stones. They are all Olivia's original creations. 

When I bought one last weekend, the clerk immediately turned to Olivia and said "We sold another one, honey." The girl smiled. Then the clerk turned to me and explained "Olivia is saving for college." On my way out the door, Olivia's mom came up to me and explained that her daughter wanted to be a veterinarian. "She's even spent time shadowing a vet. And she's getting to understand what a long road it is to get through school."

This is a quaint, small town story. Olivia's determination is admirable. But perhaps more important is her insight that having cold hard cash in hand will be as essential to her college success as getting good grades.

A few days ago, I wrote about the unseen, personal costs of college taken on mostly by first generation students and students from low to moderate income families. These students are working long hours, foregoing a social life, and cutting out any nonessentials while they are in school. Despite all the sacrifices, they are still ending up with crippling amounts of debt. So much so that it is affecting the US birth rate as those with hefty college loans are delaying or deciding not to have children altogether because of their precarious financial position.

In his book How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character, journalist Paul Tough recently wrote about how evidence from a wide range of scientific and economic research shows that non-academic skills like that ability to focus, control impulses, be persistent, and maintain one's curiosity are more key to earning a college degree than academic smarts. In other words, sacrifice and discipline are much of what it takes. 

That is all well and good. Any parent (or any employer for that matter) wants to see a young person who knows how to work extremely hard and is unwavering in their dedication. It is undeniably fantastic that 11-year old Olivia is focusing on her dream, and earning the money to finance it. Yet, there is a fine line between dreams and desperation. And as college costs mount, students work longer hours years before and while they are in college, and unforgiving private loans become the only way to get by, it is hard not to worry that this line will continue to be blurred.