Working Their Way Through College
During the 2003–04 academic year, 78 percent of undergraduates worked while they were enrolled. The share of students who work has remained virtually unchanged since the federal government first began asking students detailed questions about their employment in the mid-1990s. On average, employed students spend almost 30 hours per week working while enrolled. Again, this figure has changed little since the mid-’90s.
This issue brief addresses key questions about undergraduates who work, using data from the 2003–04 National Postsecondary Student Aid Study (NPSAS) conducted by the U.S. Department of Education. Among the highlights:
- Regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, dependency or marital status, enrollment status, type of institution attended, or even income or educational and living expenses, 70–80 percent of students work while they are enrolled.
- There is predictable variability in the amount of time students spend working, with part-time students, older students, low-income students, and students from under-represented minority groups spending more time at work than others.
- Despite this variability, surprisingly large shares of white and upper-income students work more than 20 hours per week.
About one-quarter of full-time students work full time.
One-third of working students describe themselves as employees who also are taking classes. These individuals—most of whom are older and attend college part time—continue to hold the jobs they had prior to enrolling in college.
- Most of the remaining two-thirds of working students state that their primary reason for working is to pay tuition, fees, and living expenses, with upper-income students more likely to work in order to earn spending money or gain job experience.
- Research has shown that working 15 or fewer hours per week—ideally, on campus or in a position related to one’s academic interests—has a positive effect on persistence and degree completion. Only a minority of working students hold such positions.
- It is difficult to understand the role that work may play in helping dependent students pay for college because income and educational expenses do not appear to significantly influence the likelihood that students will work, the amount that they work, or the amount that they earn.
Working students are ubiquitous in American higher education. Students are more likely to work than they are to live on campus, to study full time, to attend a four-year college or university, or to apply for or receive financial aid. Students work regardless of the type of institution they attend, their age or family responsibilities, or even their family income or educational and living expenses. Working while enrolled is perhaps the single most common major activity among America’s diverse undergraduate population.
Which Students Work?
Regardless of age, gender, race/ethnicity, dependency or marital status, enrollment status, type of institution attended, or even income, 70–80 percent of students work while they are enrolled. The share of students who work ranges from 68 percent among Asian-American students to 83 percent among students who attend part time. While one might expect the share of students who work to vary significantly by income, age, or attendance or dependency status, this is not the case.
Reprinted with the permission of the American Council on Education. © 2008 American Council on Education.
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