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In its idealized conception, college is an ivory tower where students, through quiet contemplation or raucous self-discovery, ready themselves for “the real world.”

But as 20 percent of all college students can attest, being a hardworking student these days means precisely that.

Work.

Not just the on-campus work-study variety. This is real-world work: 20 or 30 hours a week or more.

One out of every five college students works full-time, 35-plus hours a week, all year long, according to the most recently released census figures. With college bills at record highs, students say it’s not a choice. It’s a must.

Average student debt now sits at $26,600. The cost to attend a public four-year college, with room and board, on average: $17,860 per year. Private: $40,000.

After subtracting grants and scholarships, tuition paid by students at public universities jumped 8.3 percent last year, the biggest increase on record, according to a report released last week by the State Higher Education Executive Officers Association.

College bills have become so onerous for some, in fact, that last month the Chronicle of Higher Education reported on a brisk market for students selling parts of their physical selves: plasma, sperm, eggs, their bodies for medical clinical studies.

“It’s fast, easy money,” said Nikki Hill, a 25-year-old, full-time online student at Missouri Southern State University who previously attended the University of Kansas.

While at KU, Hill said, she sold plasma twice a week while also working at a coffee shop to pay her bills.

“College is expensive. I was making $60 a week donating my plasma,” said Hill, who said she earned thousands of dollars over three years this way. “All my friends were doing it, too. I used to round everyone up and drive them all with me to the plasma center.”

For the majority of students who don’t go to such lengths, however, the daily working world has become the primary option.

For years, studies have found that holding a job for 10 to 15 hours a week during college can actually help students perform better in the classroom. But students today are going far beyond that limit, experts say.

Too many hours has a price all its own.

“The toll it takes on students is pretty significant,” said Josh Gunn, president-elect of the American College Counseling Association and director of counseling and psychological services at Kennesaw State University. “Students are depleted, exhausted, and something has to suffer.”

At Kennesaw, Gunn said, “it has been quite evident that more students than ever are carrying a full load of classes and a full-time job at the same time.”

When students become too run-down to make it through even one more day of double duty, he said, they usually will choose to go to work over class to pay the bills.

Working has costs in terms of time, psychology, social life and, for many, grades.

Studies have long shown that working a few hours during college improves academic performance, said Laura Perna, a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and editor in 2010 of “Understanding the Working College Student.”

Those studies, however, focus on “traditional students,” she said.

They include students ages 18 to 24 who work 10 to 15 hours a week and who are enrolled full-time while their parents foot most of their bills, she said. Among those students, limited work outside school helps develop skills such as time management, focus and responsibility.

In other words, students who are good workers outside college also tend to work well inside college. But there’s also a problem.

“The problem is that most kids don’t fit that profile any longer,” Perna said.

They’re working much, much more.

The work breakdown, according to the National Center for Education Statistics: Forty percent of full-time college students hold regular jobs. Among them, three out of five work at least 20 hours per week. Seven percent of full-time students work full time.

Among part-time students, 73 percent hold jobs. Of those, four out of five punch in more than 20 hours per week. Fully a third of part-time students work full-time.

This is hardly to say that working during college is new.

National statistics indicate that the peak employment year for college students ages 16 to 24 was 2000, the year before the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Percentages have gradually been ticking down since.

While 40 percent of full-time students now work regular jobs, 52 percent did so in 2000.

But interpreting the numbers is thorny, said Michelle Asha Cooper, president of the Institute for Higher Education Policy in Washington.

With tuition costs and student loans mounting, the notion that fewer rather than more students would be working seems paradoxical.

For some students, finding a job may be harder now than it would have been in the past. After five years of recession, students aren’t just competing with each other for work. Some are going up against their parents.

“When the economy tanks and there are no jobs, it can be hard for students to get jobs, too,” said Sandy Bauer, an education policy consultant and senior fellow at the George Washington University Graduate School of Education.

Even students with full scholarships feel the need to work.

Bailey Reimer, 21, a senior at KU with a 3.99 GPA, receives paid tuition through a full scholarship.

“But as far as my living expenses, I pay those myself,” she said.

An American studies and linguistics major, she holds two jobs with variable hours, putting in about 16 hours a week.

Although her jobs are not for survival, she said, they enhance her overall college experience, like a semester abroad she spent in Spain and paid for herself.