Understanding the Working College Student

This is the typical response from faculty members and administrators who are asked how much undergraduate students should work at paying jobs while attending college. Available research supports this recommendation. Quantitative studies consistently show that retention rates are higher for students who work a modest number of hours per week (ten to fifteen) than they are for students who do not work at all or those who work more than fifteen hours per week. Research also shows increased academic success for students working on rather than off campus.

Unfortunately, this simple recommendation is no longer feasible or realistic for the typical undergraduate. Most college students are now not only employed but also working a substantial number of hours, a fact not widely understood or discussed by faculty members and policy makers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007 nearly half (45 percent) of “traditional” undergraduates—that is, students between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four attending college full time—worked while enrolled. About 80 percent of traditional-age undergraduates attending college part time worked while enrolled. (See figures 1 and 2.) The share of full-time, traditional-age undergraduates working fewer than twenty hours per week has declined during the past decade (to about 15 percent in 2007), while the number working between twenty and thirty-four hours per week has increased (to about 21 percent in 2007). Today nearly one in ten (8 percent) full-time, traditional-age undergraduates is employed at least thirty-five hours per week. Contrary to the common belief that community college students are more likely to be employed than students at four-year institutions, the distribution of undergraduates by the number of hours worked is similar at public two-year, public four-year, and private four-year institutions, after controlling for differences in attendance status.

Working is now a fundamental responsibility for many undergraduates. But understanding how employment affects students’ educational experiences is complicated by why students work. Many students must work to pay the costs of attending college. As College Board policy analyst Sandy Baum argues in a 2010 collection of essays I edited, Understanding the Working College Student: New Research and Its Implications for Policy and Practice, while some of these students are awarded “work” as part of their financial aid package, other students either do not receive work-study funding or find such awards insufficient to cover the costs of attendance. Some traditional-age students may use employment as a way to explore career options or earn spending money. For other students, particularly adult students, work is a part of their identity, as Carol Kasworm, a professor of adult education at North Carolina State University, and other contributors to Understanding the Working College Student point out. Regardless of the reason for working, trying to meet the multiple and sometimes conflicting simultaneous demands of the roles of student, employee, parent, and so on often creates high levels of stress and anxiety, making it less likely that students will complete their degrees.

Although students who work have an obligation to fulfill their academic responsibilities, colleges and universities also have a responsibility to ensure that all students—including those who work—can be successful.

One obvious approach is for colleges and universities to reduce students’ financial need to work by reducing the rate of tuition growth and increasing need-based grants. Colleges and universities can also reduce the prevalence and intensity of employment through financial aid counseling that informs students of both the consequences of working and alternative mechanisms of paying for college. Nonetheless, given the recent economic recession (and its implications for tuition, financial aid, and students’ financial resources) as well as the centrality of jobs to students’ identities, many will likely continue to work substantial numbers of hours.

Even on campuses where relatively few students work and those who do work relatively few hours and primarily on rather than off campus, the applicable research suggests that reconceptualizing “work” and its role in students’ learning and engagement could be beneficial. Often professors and administrators believe that employment pulls students’ attention away from their academic studies; they define any time spent in paid employment as necessarily reducing the amount of time available for learning. Qualitative data indicate that this time trade-off is real for many working students. But what if working were considered not as detracting from education but as promoting student learning? From a human-capital perspective, both employment (especially when defined as on-the-job training) and formal education build students’ human capital. Given this theoretical perspective as well as the reality of student employment, colleges and universities should consider ways to transform employment into an experience that can enhance students’ intellectual development.

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