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New report: You can’t work your way through college anymore


 A generation ago, you could pay for college with money earned through summer and part-time jobs. Now, that’s only possible if your part-time job is hedge fund manager.

A new report released today by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce looks at the nearly 70 percent of students who work while enrolled in college. The report found low-income students tend to work more hours and pay a price for it with lower college graduation rates. 

Longer hours add up to lower grades and lower completion rates. Only 22 percent of low-income students working while enrolled complete a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 37 percent of higher-income working peers.

Work has become a necessity for many students, given the cost of higher education in America. Between 2005-2006 and 2015–2016, prices for undergraduate tuition, fees, room, and board rose 34 percent for public colleges and 26 percent for private nonprofit campuses, according to the National Center for Education Statistics

The average cost of tuition and fees for 2017–2018 was $34,740 at private colleges, $9,970 for state residents at public colleges, and $25,620 for out-of-state residents attending public universities, according to the College Board.

“You can’t work your way through college anymore,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center and lead author of the report. “Colleges need to do a better job of providing the right support services to ensure their working students have the means to reach graduation and gainful employment.” 

“Balancing Work and Learning: Implications for Low-Income Students” found more hours on the job decreases the likelihood of earning good grades and finishing college no matter the student’s income level. However, it’s lower-income kids who put in more hours at work and suffer the consequences. 

Nearly two-thirds of higher-income working students who work less than 15 hours a week earn grades of B or higher. But nearly 60 percent of low-income working learners who work more than 15 hours a week earn grades of C or lower on average. 

And higher-income students end up with better jobs and work experience, such as internships and assistantships: 14 percent get jobs in a lucrative career field, such as science, technology, engineering, and math, business, or healthcare, while only 6 percent of their low-income peers work in these fields. 

Low-income students are more apt to work in food service, and sales jobs. Yes, they make money, but they don’t make the connections or gain the relevant experience that can lead to jobs after college. 

In a phone interview, Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown Center and co-author of the report, explained, “Everybody works. What dictates where you work is much more a function of your economic status than your scores in your exams or your merit.” 

More privileged students tend to work in jobs that enhance their majors and academic goals, said Smith. 

“It is certainly a function of where you start off in this race. There is a lot of social capital in having the right type of comrades and cohorts who can call someone for you to get that interview. It doesn’t mean these kids aren’t qualified, but they also have the added benefit, that extra oomph, of having someone give them a recommendation or tell them where the opportunities lie,” she said.

Research shows internships and work experience in high-demand fields give students a leg up in finding gainful employment after graduation. Smith says community colleges have led the way in creating opportunities by bringing in local industries to meet with their students about potential jobs and internships. 

Colleges have to focus more on linking their students, especially low-income ones, with business partners in the community who can give them meaningful work or internships. Whether colleges do that and how well should be consideration for students before deciding on a college, said Smith. 

“More and more, though, some schools are using their job placement successes as an indicator why you should come to their school,” said Smith. But she advised students to check the claims, and make sure to review the outcomes for their specific programs of study.

If colleges could do one thing for their low-income students, Smith said, “I would recommend early detection of students having the most challenges for completion. Completion is key. It is critical for colleges to make sure there is early detection of problems, so students can bolster their completion requirements.”

The study warns working students from low-income families have been sold a bill of goods, told their hard work will pay off when it ends up sabotaging their studies. 

The study states:

They have been failed by an education system that perpetuates intergenerational inequality; a labor market that offers them fewer high-quality job opportunities with career-building work experience while they are in school; skyrocketing college prices that make it practically impossible to work one’s way through college anymore; poor information about education and career pathways and their outcomes; and a lack of sufficient support mechanisms and financial and social safety net.

The study points out that more education is now necessary to survive:

In the modern economy, only about 20 percent of young people, virtually none of whom are female, can still get the specific and general skills they need with a high school diploma and on-the-job training alone. Instead, in the 21st century, the majority of entry-level jobs require a rich mix of formal postsecondary education along with high-quality work experience, preferably matched to an individual’s career pathway or postsecondary field of study…These changes have put more economic pressure on students from low-income families, who are less likely than higher-income students to attain a postsecondary credential. Economic inequality has increased immensely since 1980; 60 to 70 percent of the increase is due to the growing difference between the earnings of high school and college graduates.

Other key findings from the report include: 

Of the 14 million working learners, about 6 million (43%) are low-income students. 

Low-income working learners are disproportionately Black (18%) and Latino (25%), women (58%), and First-generation college-goers (47%), while higher-income working learners tend to be White (73%).

Low-income working learners are more likely to enroll in certificate programs and attend either two-year public or for-profit colleges than higher-income working learners. 

Low-income working learners are less likely to earn a credential overall, even if they come from the upper end of the academic performance distribution, whereas higher-income working students are more likely to enroll in bachelor’s degree programs and attend selective four-year colleges and universities. 

 


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About the Author

Maureen Downey has written editorials and opinion pieces about local, state and federal education policy since the 1990s.