Higher Education

Quantifying the risks of working while in college

Low-income students who work are less likely to excel in their studies

college job

This report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce highlights the special difficulties for low-income students of working while in college.

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Low-income college students with jobs are more likely to have lower grade-point averages and less likely to graduate than their higher income peers. A report released this week from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce highlighted these drawbacks, and many others that come with working as an undergraduate student.

It’s common for students from all income brackets to work, the report notes, but students from more modest backgrounds often perform work that doesn’t match their career and academic goals.

They are more likely to work in food services, sales and administrative roles, which often offer low hourly wages and fewer opportunities to develop sought-after skills. Only 6 percent of students from low-income families work in lucrative fields such as science, technology, engineering or math (STEM); business or healthcare, according to the report. Fourteen percent of higher-income working students have jobs in these fields.

Where a student works and the type of work he or she does can set the stage for career outcomes.

“Students from higher-income family backgrounds are far more likely to work in a job related to their major or field of study than students from low-income families,” the report states. “Interning or working in a job that aligns with their field of study improves both academic and career performances for these higher-income young people.”

Students from more financially strapped households are also inclined to work longer hours, which leaves less time for studying. About 48 percent of low-income students work 15 to 35 hours per week, and 26 percent work more than 35 hours.

“Among low-income working learners who work 15 or more hours a week, 59 percent have a C average or lower,” the report states.

And all too often, working to pay for school won’t actually help low-income students get a degree or avoid debt.

The report states: “Low-income working learners are less likely to complete a degree or credential. For example, only 22 percent of low-income working learners complete a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 37 percent of higher-income working learners.”

Related: Can ‘work colleges’ in cities become a low-cost, high-value model for the future?

Many will leave school with an outstanding bill.

“Low-income working learners were more likely to rely solely on credit cards to pay tuition and fees,” the report states.

Higher-income students often have financial safety nets that allow them to work less and be more selective about where they work.

A few schools have built their entire academic experience around reducing college costs for low-income students and strengthening students’ career preparation. At the nine federally-designated work colleges, residential students are required to work to reduce the cost of their tuition and fees. Most work-colleges are in rural areas, but the newest school – Paul Quinn College – is in Dallas. Paul Quinn College hopes to create a network of urban work colleges.

Plus, Congress has increased the award amount for Pell grants, which go to college students most in need.

Many higher education experts argue, however, that more can and should be done to support these students.

The Jack Kent Cooke Foundation in November highlighted 11 ways institutions can make college more affordable, which include better educating students about financial aid and using low-cost textbooks.

The Georgetown report encourages educators to start teaching students about financing and budgeting as early as middle school and urges colleges to “improve their career counseling and guidance services for working learners.”

This story working while in college was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.

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Delece Smith-Barrow

Delece Smith-Barrow is a senior editor for higher education at The Hechinger Report. She was a 2017 Knight-Wallace Fellow at the University of Michigan, where… See Archive

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