Unemployment disrupts education for low-income WA college students

Students who depend on part-time jobs to help pay tuition and other expenses are making difficult choices during the COVID-related economic downturn.

Clarisse Yapjoco at a park near her home in Snohomish on Feb. 18, 2020. The Seattle milk tea store where Yapjoco worked closed in March due to the pandemic. She also moved out of the house she lived in near the University of Washington and into her parents home in order to save money. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Zi Huang, a junior at the University of Washington, lost his part-time retail job in a Seattle Nike store at the beginning of 2020 as the store shut down because of COVID-19 restrictions. He wasn’t the only family member who lost his job; his parents, who worked in the hotel industry, were laid off in March 2020 as a result of budget cuts. 

“My family is relying on the unemployment benefits right now,” said Huang, who intends to major in business. “Recently, I have paid for my mom’s wage and food due to financial shortage. We are just financially short.” 

With the ongoing financial instability, Huang and his family adapted by changing their purchasing habits. 

“We used to eat out occasionally and purchase groceries that we wanted rather than needed,” he said. “Nowadays, we have to find cheaper alternatives and spend our money on more essential products.” 

Between December 2019 and December 2020, Washington’s unemployment rate has grown from 4.3% to 7.1%, according to the state Employment Security Department. The numbers for youth have gone up much more dramatically. For those 16 to 19 years old, unemployment has gone from 15.9% in 2019 to 26.7% in 2020; for those 20 to 24, the rate has increased from 7.4% in 2019 to 16.3% in 2020, according to the department.

The ongoing pandemic has made finding a part-time job of any sort a challenge for students at the University of Washington and other colleges and universities. Because many students take on part-time jobs to pay a portion of their tuition and living expenses, the increase in youth unemployment has been challenging for them and their parents. In addition, seniors graduating from college and looking for full-time positions are facing tremendous difficulties as well.

Huang is fortunate that his financial aid at the University of Washington covers not only his school expenses, but also includes an extra $1,000 to pay for groceries and other living expenses for himself and his family. Huang lives at home. 

Although Huang’s school fees are all taken care of, he is still enrolled in YearUp, a program that helps low-income young adults find jobs to earn extra income to help his family. After Huang waited for months, YearUp matched him to a technical analyst position. He currently makes $400 every two weeks, which removes a lot of stress off his parents’ shoulders. However, Huang’s internship is coming to an end, which means he will be looking for new positions to keep supporting his family. 

Clarisse Yapjoco at a park near her home in Snohomish on Feb. 18, 2020. She recently transferred to Cascadia College in Bothell because of the high cost of attending the University of Washington. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Clarisse Yapjoco at a park near her home in Snohomish on Feb. 18, 2020. She recently transferred to Cascadia College in Bothell because of the high cost of attending the University of Washington. (Dorothy Edwards/Crosscut)

Not everyone is as lucky as Huang to have tuition expenses fully covered by financial aid. 

Clarisse Yapjoco, a UW junior, whose financial aid covered only part of her tuition, recently transferred to Cascadia College in Bothell because of the high cost of attending the UW. Including tuition, housing and other expenses, the university estimates annual attendance costs undergraduates nearly $30,000.

Before the pandemic, Yapjoco worked at a local milk tea store, which shut down due to COVID-19 restrictions.

In early March, Yapjoco had to move out of a house near UW she shared with other students. She moved back home to live with her family in Mill Creek to save money. She also took an unplanned gap year and paid off the remaining rent for the shared house using a loan from her parents. And she had to take a student loan from the UW to pay for school expenses. 

“My parents have never paid anything for my tuition,” Yapjoco said, “There are six people in my household, and three of us are in college right now. As the oldest sister, I have to be independent. My dad is the only working person in our family right now, and he needs to cover all the bills. I just need to help him out.”

After deciding to take a gap year, Yapjoco started looking for a job to pay her debts, help out her family and eventually return to school.

She used to get free bread from her past workplace, and during the summer of 2020, Yapjoco and her family got some of their food from a local food bank, where they also volunteer.

At the end of the summer, Yapjoco was found a job at Safeway and has earned enough to help her family to pay for electricity, internet and TV bills. 

Yapjoco said the decision to transfer to Cascadia, a community college, wasn’t sudden and wasn’t just because of COVID-19 and the economic downturn. She had been thinking about it, but the pandemic accelerated her decision making. 

“Trying to stay alive in Seattle is so hard that you have no energy left for school,” she said. 

Recently, Yapjoco quit her job at Safeway because of increasing health concerns related to COVID-19. “I have begun job hunting again, but I feel very blessed to have my family here to support me,” she said.

While students are having a tough time finding off-campus jobs, on-campus work is also in short supply.

“Like everybody else, [UW} Housing & Food Services is being heavily impacted financially by the pandemic, forcing us to downsize our operations,” said Morgan Lockhart, UW Housing & Food Services human resources assistant. “Unfortunately, that has created employment challenges for our students.”

According to Lockhart, Housing & Food Services used to hire more than 1,000 student employees on campus annually. Currently, it is at less than 10% of that, with many resident halls and cafeterias closed by the pandemic.

Meanwhile, Lockhart’s department is trying to develop strategies to assist students who are unemployed and in need of money. They are also helping students apply for unemployment benefits. In addition, Housing & Food Services also has kept an active list of the staff who were laid off because of the pandemic. The department plans to reach out to them first once the pandemic is over and positions reopen.  

“We also work with the work-study program and prioritize the ones in need more when we have openings,” Lockhart said. 

Not only are undergraduate students struggling, but recent graduates have had to reconsider career plans because of the nation’s high unemployment rate. 

According to Luis Santiago, the associate director of coaching operations at the University of Washington Career & Internship Center, 63.3% of the respondents to a post-graduation survey were employed full-time within seven months after they graduated from college in 2018 and 61.3% in 2019. 

The center hasn’t received as many responses for 2020 and has extended the survey deadline. However, for what it has received so far, only 18% of June 2020 graduates have secured job offers. 

“It’s definitely a hard time for the students. However, it doesn’t drastically change the steps people should take to launch a successful job search. Reach out to your network, be prepared to tailor your resume, don’t be afraid to reach out to people in your desired field/workplace, and keep your options open,” Santiago said.

About the Authors & Contributors

Muse Chen

Muse Chen is a senior at the University of Washington, double majoring in economics and journalism. You can reach her by email at musechen00@gmail.com.