LOUISVILLE, Ky.–Most college students are busy. But Alexis McLin’s schedule is even more jam-packed than the average student's.

One day last week, for instance, she attended a lab from 3 p.m. to 6:45, went to dinner with her mother, and then at midnight went in to work at UPS, where she sorts packages from midnight to 4:30 a.m.

McLin, 21, is training to be a teacher, and so after she got off work and had some breakfast, she drove to an elementary school at 7:40 a.m and observed classes for four hours. That afternoon she attended a parent-teacher conference, capping off more than 24 hours straight of work and school with no sleep.

Alexis McLin at the UPS offices (Alana Semuels)

It wasn’t an unusual day for McLin, who is attending the University of Louisville for free through a program that pays her tuition if she works the overnight shift at UPS and keeps her grades above a C. The program, called Metropolitan College, has been held up as a model of a public-private partnership, helping students pay for school while filling holes in the workforce.

Indeed, McLin, a chipper redhead whom I interviewed at the UPS facility at two in the morning last week, told me this was the only way she could attend college, as her family can’t afford the tuition. But even her family is incredulous at the hours she keeps. She works five nights a week at UPS from midnight until 4:30 a.m., and still finds time to go to classes, participate in color guard, and fulfill student-teaching responsibilities.

“It was really hard in the beginning, but I got used to it,” the junior told me. “I’ve become more responsible and more organized with my time.”

Tour the UPS facility between midnight and 4 a.m. Monday through Friday and you’ll see many students like McLin sorting mail envelopes, dragging heavy containers full of packages to and from airplanes, and unloading carts of mail onto conveyor belts, 155 miles of which chug around the facility. Of the 6,000 people working there on any given night shift, about 2,000 of them are in the Metropolitan College program, which gives in-state tuition to the night-shift workers to attend either the University of Louisville or Jefferson Community and Technical College during the day. (Metropolitan College isn’t a university itself, just the name of the program.)

The program was created in the late 1990s after UPS had trouble with turnover: In a booming economy, at the wages it was paying, the company couldn’t keep workers on the night shift for more than a month or two. It was also having labor problems: In 1997, the Teamsters held a 15-day strike at UPS demanding more part-time jobs and higher wages at the company. (Student workers now make $10 an hour, but when the program started, they made $8.50.)

When UPS threatened to locate an expansion of its busy air hub elsewhere, state and city leaders held an emergency meeting to come up with an idea for retaining workers. Their proposal: City government would pay half of students’ tuition; UPS the other half. Together, the full-tuition benefit would be enough to keep night-shift workers on the rolls. Since then, turnover on the night shift has dropped from 70 percent to 20 percent annually, and 14,000 students have worked at UPS while attending school.

“It’s a win-win because it has stabilized our workforce considerably, and the Commonwealth gets a much better-educated workforce,” Mike Mangeot, a UPS spokesman, told me as we drove around the busy airport—the largest automated package-handling facility in the world—at three in the morning.

It’s not just tuition: Students also receive benefits such as health insurance, and are paid bonuses for finishing college and the semester. They also get counseling to help them juggle their responsibilities, and many students end up working their way up the corporate ladder at UPS after they graduate. (They're also paid for the hours they work.)

But as I walked through the long rows of students pushing envelopes to conveyor belts and into the open air where teenagers pulled cargo off jet planes, I wondered if the system really is win-win. I was having trouble staying awake and alert as we got closer and closer to dawn, and I couldn’t imagine being able to focus on homework or college lectures later on in the day.

The UPS/Metropolitan College model helps students pay for college, and for that it should be lauded. But can college students really work the night shift five nights a week and stay alert enough at school to understand what was happening in their classes? In the richest country in the world, shouldn't there be a less hellish way to finance a college diploma?

* * *

For the first 200 or so years after Harvard, the first college in America, was founded in 1636, students either studied the classics or technical topics such as science or agriculture. But in the mid-1800s, leaders of schools including Harvard and Yale, concerned that wealthy families were starting to see college as useless, began to embrace a curriculum that both prepared students for the working world and gave them a broad education in a number of topics. In 1869, Charles W. Eliot, who was soon appointed president of Harvard, laid out his vision for what he called "a practical education" in a piece in The Atlantic.

“The fact is, that the whole tone and spirit of a good college ought to be different in kind from that of a good polytechnic or scientific school,” he wrote. “In the college, the desire for the broadest culture, for the best formation and information of the mind, the enthusiastic study of subjects for the love of them without any ulterior objects, the love of learning and research for their own sake, should be the dominant ideas,” he wrote.

Eliot spent much of the next 40 years making Harvard into a place where students could get a "practical education," which combined exploration and abstract learning with the acquisition of useful skills.

Charles W. Eliot (Harvard Alumni Association)

At the time, a college education was only accessible to the most elite: In 1940, only 6 percent of males had completed four years of college, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics; fewer than half of Americans had finished eighth grade.

But college attainment rates began to grow steadily after World War II, when the G.I. Bill sent millions of returning soldiers to college and helped promote a more democratic notion of who could get a college degree. (It is important to note, however, that the effects of the G.I. Bill did not fall equally to all Americans, and many black veterans, particularly in the South, did not benefit at all.) College completion rates rose from 6 percent of males to 12 percent by 1962. Women and minorities began to attend college in greater numbers, too. These trends accelerated in the later part of the 20th century and early 21st: College enrollment climbed from 25 percent of 18-to-24-year-olds in 1967 to 41 percent in 2012.

But as more students began attending college, the new institutions that sprang up to educate students didn’t have the endowments of the older schools. And as colleges began to compete against one another to attract students and faculty, they started spending more money on things like sports teams, new buildings, and personnel. Tuition and fees have gone up 1,120 percent since 1978 alone, according to Bloomberg.

Today, affordability is the factor most challenging students’ ability to go to college. And as students struggle with how to pay for school, many are finding they don’t have as much time for—let alone want to spend their limited money on—“learning and research for their own sake.” Fearing the specter of loans hanging over them forever, many students try to finish college as quickly as possible, live at home, and work one or two jobs during school to save money. Their main concerns aren't whether they have time to take all of the fascinating and varied classes in the course catalog, but instead how they can get all their credit hours in without going so deep into debt that they'll never escape. Though they've been told that a college education is what they need to succeed in America, the stress of paying for that education challenges their ability to benefit from it.

In 2011, about 71 percent of undergraduates worked while enrolled in college, according to a recent Census report. And they’re working more hours, rather than fewer, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The share of those working fewer than 20 hours per week has declined, to about 15 percent in 2007, while the percentage of those working between 20 and 34 hours increased to 21 percent.

Working a small number of hours—say, less than 15—can be beneficial to a student, especially if that job is on campus, said Laura Perna, a professor at Penn's Graduate School of Education who is also the executive director of the Alliance for Higher Education and Democracy. A job on campus provides another way for the student to be integrated into the campus, and it is usually flexible so that a student can take whatever classes he or she wants, or work less during exam periods.

But working more than 15 or so hours can be detrimental to a student's academic performance, she said.

“It’s often very difficult for students, with the stress of trying to manage multiple responsibilities,” she said. “The fact that there’s only so many hours in a day—when you’re allocating a certain number of hours to paid employment, the energy you have to be engaged with your academic requirements declines.”

Working all night can be challenging for students, especially those who have early morning classes or exams. A study published last year in the Journal of Nature and Science of Sleep found that sleep deprivation and daytime sleepiness in college students can result in lower grade point averages, increased risk of academic failure, and impaired mood. Subjects who were tested after 35 hours of sleep deprivation, for example, saw scores drop two letter grades when compared to non-sleep-deprived subjects. Students who slept for nine hours a night or more had much higher GPAs than those who slept for fewer than six hours a night.

Workers unload mail off a plane at UPS WorldPort. (Alana Semuels)

It’s not just the physical strain of sleep deprivation that affects students. When students are so overworked, Perna said, they aren’t able to spend as much time paying attention to learning, and to enjoying the learning experience. Indeed, none of the students I saw at the UPS center were likely spending many late nights cramming for exams with friends, or talking about literature with people they’d just met, or taking extra time on a science experiment, just because they found it interesting.

Instead, many of the students have to plan every minute of their day to squeeze in work, sleep, classes, and homework.

When you’re trying to simultaneously hold down a job and stay enrolled and make satisfactory academic progress, there can be an absence of attention to the enjoyment of the learning experience,” Perna said.

Still, some students don't mind trading that "enjoyment of the learning experience" for an absence of loans. Tori Ziegler started out college attending the University of Kentucky and living in the dorms. By the end of her first semester, though, Ziegler began to worry about the size of the loans she was taking out, and how she was going to pay them back. She transferred to the University of Louisville and Metropolitan College and started working as a sorter on the night shift at UPS.

“I wasn’t going to be able to finish school if I didn’t find some way to get it paid for,” she told me.

Sorters at UPS (Alana Semuels)

Sorting is tough work—in some jobs, you stand between lines of quick-moving conveyor belts as mail chugs down a chute, when the parcels reach you, you move them into compartments on the conveyor belt as quickly as you can. In other jobs, you take the mail that’s fallen into a bag destined for, say, Lincoln, Nebraska, zip up those bags and load them onto a container bound for an airplane. In the summer, the sorting area, located atop the floors and floors of automated machinery at UPS, can get incredibly hot, students told me.

“It’s manual labor, definitely,” Ziegler said. “At first, it was a big adjustment, I was sore and tired. But I knew it was the only way I was going to get to go to school.”

When in school, Ziegler said, her planner was her best friend—she’d write down everything she had to do during the week and plan every minute. Some days, if she got behind on homework, she’d try and finish it when she got off work, around six in the morning, and then sleep for a couple hours before doing it all again.

She had to show up at work, but she also had to do well at school: If students get below a “C” they have to repay UPS the tuition for that class. But Ziegler said she was motivated to make the UPS program work.

“Both of my parents were pretty adamant—do this, so you can do better than we did,” she told me (neither of her parents graduated from college). “I knew that I had to do it, but there were times I thought I would never make it.”

Ziegler worked the night shift for the rest of college, and finished in December with a degree in sociology. Soon after, a job at UPS in the HR department opened up, and she now works for the HR department from 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., five days a week.

Mail sorters at UPS (Alana Semuels)

She doesn't regret missing the "college experience," she told me; she preferred living at home to living in the dorms, and liked socializing with the people she met at UPS more than those at school.

But Ziegler's school experience was vastly different than the liberal-arts education that Charles Eliot envisioned in his Atlantic article and that has been held up as a model of American education for more than a century. Indeed, Eliot wrote that in order to get a good education, students shouldn't work manual labor while enrolled.

Referring to the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, which at the time had students perform manual labor, Eliot wrote that “the experiment of making manual labor a part of the regular curriculum has been tried, and has failed.” Young children may be able to work in factories for half a day and then learn to read and write, Eliot argued, but for advanced instruction, students need more time for intellectual pursuits.

“To be sure, a young man cannot read and write 14 hours a day; but when he cannot be studying books he can be catching butterflies, hunting for flowers and stones, experimenting in a chemical laboratory, practicing mechanical drawing, sharpening his wits in converse with bright associates, or learning manners in ladies society,” he wrote. “Any of these occupations is much better for him than digging potatoes, sawing wood, laying brick, or setting type.”

* * *

While I was in Kentucky, I also visited Berea College, set in a bucolic small town in the eastern part of the state. Berea, founded in 1855 as the first co-ed, non-segregated school in the South, is a "work college": It provides its students free tuition, and, in exchange, they must work on campus for 10 to 15 hours a week.

Berea is one of just seven “work colleges” in the United States. Many, like Berea, provide free or reduced tuition in exchange for work. All try to incorporate that work experience into a student's academic life, so that students don't have to sacrifice their education to earn money.

Located on the edge of Appalachia, Berea serves many low-income students who would have had to take out large loans to attend college at all (99 percent of first-year students are eligible for Pell Grants). The jobs assigned to students vary from serving food in the dining halls to working in the public-relations office of the school, and are limited to 10 to 15 hours a week.

I talked to Brittany Kenyon and Lisa Rivera, a freshman and a sophomore coming out of one of Berea’s picturesque brick dorms on a recent weeknight: Kenyon works cleaning the dorms; Rivera works for dining services. Both said they'd chosen Berea in part because they wouldn't have to take out loans. But they're getting a good education, too. Work never gets in the way of school, they told me.

“They schedule you around your classes here,” Kenyon told me. “The classes come first, if you have an hour here, and hour there, that's when you work.”

Berea College (blueathena7/Flickr)

The freedom of not having to pay for school has allowed some students to use their time to invest back in the community. One student I talked to, Ethan Hamblin, was able to work for a foundation that encouraged grassroots philanthropy in Appalachia. He is still employed there today, although he already graduated.

The work-college model is lauded by both students and education advocates, but it’s not practical for most universities. Berea, for instance, runs off a hefty $1 billion endowment.

But there are schools that are trying to use the work-college model to make tuition more affordable. Paul Quinn College, a private liberal-arts institution in Texas that serves minorities, recently announced that it was launching what it's calling a "New Urban College Model" that will integrate work into students' college experience as a way to reduce tuition costs.

The school launched the program because many of its students were struggling with how to pay for school, Michael Sorrell, the college’s president, told me. Beginning this fall, students will spend some time working for the school for their first two years, and then will work for companies outside of the university for their second two years. Students will not work more than 20 hours a week, he told me. With Pell Grants and the work credit, students should only have to pay a few thousand dollars a semester, he said, down from the $23,850 in tuition the school had been charging.

Sorrel says he wants his students to still be able to get a liberal-arts education. But helping them organize their work experience through college will allow them to do that, while still paying for college, he said.

“If your students are already working and you don’t help them, then they’re going to get whatever jobs they can, and those jobs aren’t always compatible with their classes,” he said.

A class at Paul Quinn College (Paul Quinn College/Travis G. Lilley)

I hadn’t mentioned UPS when we talked, but Sorrell brought up the problem of students taking night-shift work without my prompting. Before starting this program, he said, many of the students at Paul Quinn found jobs at a FedEx facility nearby, working the midnight shift. They often struggled to stay up for the night shift and achieve academically.

“If you get off work at 3, 4 a.m., you’re not going to your 8 a.m. class,” he said. “And if you go to the 8 a.m. class, you’re not really there.”

"It should never have been defined as either/or," he said. "I don’t think students are well-served not being given an opportunity to focus on learning. "Where we've gone wrong, Sorrell, said, is making students feel like they have to chose between a liberal-arts education and an affordable education that also prepares them for the real world. He's hoping that Paul Quinn's program will allow them to do both.

* * *

It's easy to pick on Metropolitan College and the bargain Louisville struck with UPS. After all, UPS wasn't paying people enough to stay in part-time jobs, so it got Louisville to pitch in a subsidy to make those jobs attractive to low-income people who wanted to go to college.

But it also could be argued that the more options students have in paying for college, the better. Just 11 percent of low-income students who are first in their family to attend college will have a degree six years after enrolling because of the many challenges, financial and academic, that they face. And while it might have once been possible for students to work their way through college on grit alone, tuition has risen so much faster than the minimum wage that a student would now have to work 991 hours to pay for one year of public university tuition, one study found.

Until we find a way to make college more affordable, it can't hurt to give students more ways to pay for college. As long as they know they have options. Students should be aware that they can take out loans and not work during school, Perna told me, or that they can get a job and work and study throughout. They should know that there are Pell Grants available and state loans, in some cases. They should know there are programs such as Metropolitan College, but also that they don't have to do them to go to school.

A nursing exam prep book in the UPS facility
(Alana Semuels)

I wondered how much choice students enrolled in Metropolitan College felt they had: The city would pay half of their college tuition if they pledged to work for UPS, but otherwise, they were on their own. A friend who grew up in Louisville joked to me that students there have two choices to get a free ride to college: work the night shift at UPS or “get shot at,” by joining the military.

But then I talked to Ilya Lyalin, who is now 26, and worked for UPS during a few years of college. He wouldn't have been able to attend school without Metropolitan College: His parents, Russian immigrants, told him after his first year of low grades at Jefferson Community and Technical College, that they weren't going to pay for school anymore, and that he should drop out and get a job.

"I basically had an option of either leaving school or going to UPS and working there and staying in school," he told me.

He thought seriously about dropping out, but a few friends were doing Metropolitan College, so he applied and started working as a loader, taking packages off a conveyor belt and stacking them in containers. When Lyalin started working in the summer, it was horrible, he said. He stayed up all night in the heat to load packages while supervisors harangued him to move faster. Once school started again, it was even worse. His friends would be hanging out, and he'd have to leave and go to work. It got worse when he transferred to the University of Louisville, which had much more of a traditional college atmosphere.

"I hated it. I was the type of college student that would just be out on weeknights, hanging out with friends, and I felt like that’s it, my life is over," he said. "Everybody says college is supposed to be amazing. I was like, this is great, but I’m going to get out of here and realize I didn’t make any friends—or get to do anything."

A supervisor at UPS WorldPort (Alana Semuels)

But he had signed the contract with UPS that said they would pay for his semester, and if he dropped the job, he'd have to repay the company. So he stuck with it. And things started getting less miserable. He got a lucky break when he got transferred to a different department that sorted irregular packages, where the work tended to be slower and he sometimes even had some time to study. He even continued to do a second job, working at a kiosk at a mall, to earn more money.

Lyalin had to quit the UPS job after he decided to study engineering. The classes and homework required to study calculus and physics required Lyalin's full brain power, and he found it was all but impossible to have the capacity to do the course work on no sleep. He did it for one semester, and it was hell. He'd work until five a.m. and then sleep until calculus class at 9 a.m., and be up for the rest of the day studying and working. The worst was every Tuesday when there would be a calculus test at 8 a.m. His GPA began to tumble.

"It was two hours of sleep every night for the whole semester," he said. "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do."

When he stopped working for UPS, his life changed. He joined a fraternity, started interning with an engineering company, finished his bachelor's, and then got his master's in engineering.

But what fascinates me about Lyalin is that he looks back fondly on his time at UPS, and sometimes kicks himself for dropping it. Yes, he drank energy drinks to stay up, and yes, his teeth rotted from those energy drinks, and yes, he sometimes had to drink NyQuil to make himself sleep at six in the morning, and yes, his coursework suffered, but he got two years of college, for free, saved up a lot of money and became more disciplined about sleep and homework.

Yes, coming from a low-income family changed his college experience, he said, but money changes everything. If money weren't an object, he would have studied politics instead of engineering, for instance. And he'd tried to reduce the role money played in his college experience: He'd applied to scholarships and grants before college, and had even been a finalist for one, but didn't receive a penny in financial aid.

Now, Lyalin has $30,000 in loans to pay off from the rest of his schooling. He has a job in Louisville, and is glad he went to college. But when he looks back, he's thankful he had UPS, miserable as it was at the time. When all is said and done, he prefers the night shift to the loans that now hover over him, and will, he says, for many years.

"The loans are much worse than working there," he told me. "I just feel like I'm caged in."

Friends who don't have loans are buying houses, adopting dogs, traveling the world. Even though he has a good job and managed to get through college and graduate school, with much of his tuition covered, Lyalin is still paying the price for being poor.