Understanding the Working College Student

New research shows that students are working more and juggling a multitude of roles, creating anxiety and lowering graduation rates.
By Laura W. Perna

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"Ten to fifteen hours per week, on campus.”

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.

Reconceptualizing Work

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.

Understanding the Working College Student offers several strategies for transforming the role of employment in students’ educational experiences. One potential strategy is to develop connections between employment and learning by incorporating into coursework the knowledge gained through work-based experiences. Another strategy is to recognize formally the contribution of workplace experiences to student learning by awarding course credit for relevant employment experiences. Several organizations offer mechanisms for assessing and awarding course credit for work and other prior experiences—for example, the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program and the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service.

Supporting Working Students

Colleges and universities can also create a supportive campus culture for working students. To do so, faculty members and administrators must understand the learning and support needs of working students. While the national data paint a picture of student employment “on average,” individual colleges and universities must also understand the patterns of employment—and the implications of these patterns—on their own campuses. Colleges and universities must educate both professors and administrators about the prevalence of student employment and how to connect students’ workplace and academic experiences and then change institutional policies, practices, and structures to promote such connections. In particular, higher education institutions, especially those with large proportions of students working large numbers of hours, should consider whether their structures are oriented toward meeting only the needs of “traditional” students—that is, students enrolled full time and working ten to fifteen hours per week in on-campus positions.

Creating an institutional culture that promotes the success of working students will require a campuswide effort that involves the faculty and administration. Colleges and universities should encourage, reward, and support faculty members who adapt their instructional practices to promote the educational success of working students. In Understanding the Working College Student, Paul Umbach, associate professor of higher education at North Carolina State University, and his co-authors demonstrate the educational benefits to working students when their instructors encourage cooperative learning, set high expectations for student achievement, and create assignments that require students to demonstrate deep learning. A campus teaching center may also support faculty efforts to help working students.

Giving students the opportunity for meaningful one-on-one interactions with their professors is also critical to fostering a supportive campus culture, and such interactions may be particularly beneficial to working students. For example, Marvin Titus, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Maryland College Park, uses quantitative analyses of data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students survey to show that the likelihood of completing a bachelor’s degree within six years increases with the frequency of student-faculty discussions in the first year of college, even after taking into account other variables. Mary Ziskin, Vasti Torres, Don Hossler, and Jacob Gross, researchers with the Project on Academic Success at Indiana University, use qualitative analyses to identify examples where instructors do not offer necessary assistance, either because they do not realize the challenges facing working students or because they do not believe they are obligated to offer any additional assistance.

Ziskin and colleagues also conclude that the academic success of many adult students may be jeopardized by their belief that their jobs, family commitments, and age make them “out of place” on campus. This problem can be remedied. Through one-on-one interactions, professors and administrators can promote adult working students’ sense of belonging and validate their presence on campus, thus encouraging their academic success.

Colleges and universities should also consider other ways to adapt the delivery of instruction as well as academic and social support services to the needs of working students. John Levin, professor of education at the University of California, Riverside, and his colleagues suggest that by adapting these structures, institutions not only allow working students to become actively engaged on campus but also promote students’ self-confidence and motivation to succeed in college.

Fostering Student Success

The research collected in Understanding the Working College Student provides numerous suggestions for how to help working students succeed in college. These include offering courses in the evenings, on weekends, and in distance education formats; establishing course schedules in advance; offering students access to academic advising and other support services at night and on weekends; offering online course registration and academic advising; providing child-care options; and providing space for students to study between work and school. Colleges and universities can also help working students connect their employment and educational experiences through career counseling and occupational placement.

Many undergraduate students struggle to meet the multiple demands of work, family, and school roles. Colleges and universities have an obligation to ensure that all students—including working students—can succeed on their campuses. Reframing work as potentially enhancing student learning and ensuring that prevailing institutional policies, practices, and structures recognize that most undergraduates will have jobs while enrolled are important steps in the right direction.

Laura W. Perna is professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Academe advisory board. Her scholarship examines how public and institutional policies enable and restrict college access and success, especially for students from historically underrepresented groups. Her e-mail address is lperna@gse.upenn.edu.

Comments

I can say that those working students have more brighter future tha the professional students
(:

I am one of those students enrolled full time, that works too much. I work Monday to Friday, 35 hrs a week, and then at a different job on Saturday and Sunday for 16 hours (8 each day). My GPA is definitely suffering for it. I have a 3.1, but if I want to get into the graduate program I want, I need 3.6 at least. I need to work less to study more. I make too much money to get student loans, and so I pay for my own education, but I can't work less because I can't pay for it all without student loans! It's a catch-22.

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