Working Their Way Through College (page 4)
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.
How Many Hours do Students Work?
There is more variability in the number of hours that students spend working. Students at community colleges and for-profit institutions—many of whom are older and attend part time—are more likely to work full time than students at public or private not-for-profit four-year colleges or universities. Not surprisingly, students who attend full time are more likely to work one to 20 hours per week while enrolled than students who attend part time. Still, 23 percent of full-time students work 35 or more hours per week while enrolled.
Dependent students with parental incomes of $60,000 or more are most likely to work one to 20 hours per week, while independent students with incomes of $25,000 or more are most likely to work 35 or more hours per week. Upper-income dependent students receive support from their parents, limiting their need to work, whereas upper-income independent students fall into that income category precisely because they are working. As one might expect, younger dependent students work less than older independent students do. Likewise, white and Asian-American students—who are more likely to be traditional-age and to come from middle- and upper-income families than students from under-represented groups—work less than African-American, Hispanic, and American Indian students.
A surprisingly large share of affluent students work and many of them work more than a part-time, one to 20-hour per week schedule. Thirty-three percent of dependent students with parental incomes of $90,000 or more work 21 or more hours per week. By comparison, 41 percent of dependent students with incomes of less than $30,000 work at least 21 hours per week—not a large difference. The need or desire to work seems to be driven by more than just family income.
What Effects Does Work Have on Students?
There are a number of ways to measure the effects of work on students, and no single measurement can adequately assess the impact that work may have. One of the simplest ways to measure the impact of work is to ask students directly how work has affected their academic pursuits. Students who work were asked about the effects that working had on various aspects of their student experience. Specifically, students were asked whether working limited their class schedules, access to facilities, choice of classes, or number of classes taken, and whether working helped in their career preparation and coursework. The results are mixed and suggest that, at least in terms of their perceptions, most students do not find work to be overly burdensome. The majority of students who work do not think that having a job imposes limitations in the four areas listed, but a sizable minority do indicate that their job limits some aspect of their academic experience (see schedule (48 percent), followed by the number of classes they take (40 percent), class choice (34 percent), and access to facilities (31 percent). Not surprisingly, the likelihood that students experience these limitations increases with the number of hours that they work. Students who work off campus also are more likely to experience these limitations than those who work on campus.
Students are not likely to find that working helps them with either career preparation or coursework. About one-third of students who work say that their jobs help with career preparation and only 14 percent say that it helps with coursework. Students who work for nonprofits, government, or the military are more likely than those with other types of employers to state that their job helps with career preparation. Students who work for these types of organizations—or for their college or university—also are more likely than those who work at for-profit companies to find that working helps with their coursework. However, no more than one in five students who work finds their jobs to be helpful with career preparation.
Another way to measure the effects of work is to compare the academic performance of students with various levels and types of work experiences. It suggests that hours worked do not always hurt academic performance. Employees who study—who tend to be older, work full time, and attend part time—have higher GPAs than either students with no job or students who work. This pattern is consistent across institution types. Further, at each level of employment, employees who study have higher GPAs than students who work, suggesting that maturity, type of program, or a host of other factors may have more influence on academic performance than hours spent at work.
For students who work, however, working more than part time does seem to have a negative impact on grades at most types of institutions. At public and private not-for-profit four-year institutions, those who work one to 20 hours per week do slightly better, on average, than those who do not work at all. However, as the number of hours spent working increases, the average GPA for students who work declines modestly. At community colleges, students who do not work perform slightly better than all students who work, and GPA declines as the number of hours at work rises. Conversely, at for-profit institutions, students who work 35 or more hours per week actually do better than both those who do not work and those who work part time. Given the diversity of for-profit institutions, ranging for short-term vocational certificate programs to four-year universities, it is difficult to interpret this finding.
Beyond GPA, the most important indicators of academic success are persistence and graduation. The study used for this issue brief is a single-year snapshot for 2003–04, so it does not capture this information. However, analyses of prior U.S. Department of Education data collections have consistently found that working more than 15 to 20 hours per week (the amount of work varies slightly from study to study) has a negative impact on persistence and degree completion.
This issue brief ends as it began, with the assertion that most students work and most students work a lot. Further, most students work in jobs that are not connected to their academic program or, in many cases, to their career goals. For some, work may be a natural extension of their lives before enrolling in college and it may be neither desirable nor practical to curtail working while enrolled. For many other students, however, work may detract from the academic experience and jeopardize successful completion of a degree or certificate.
There is no single intervention that will help all working students. Ideally, additional grant aid would limit the amount of time that low-income and academically disadvantaged students must spend away from their studies. Additional education in personal financial management may help other students better handle their money and reduce the amount that they believe they must earn while enrolled. Policy makers, campus leaders, and the business community also can examine means to make students’ work experiences more supportive of their academic and career goals by expanding work-study, co-op, and paid internship programs. While the types of response may vary, leaders must recognize and react to the fact that most students are working their way through college.
Reprinted with the permission of the American Council on Education. © 2008 American Council on Education.
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