Study: Working in College Harms Low-Income Student Degree Attainment

By Allie Bidwell, NASFAA Senior Reporter

Students today are often required to find ways beyond grants and loans to pay for their college education, and nearly three-quarters of students work while in college to help pay their own way. But at a certain point, working while in school may have more of a negative impact on completion rates for low-income working students specifically, according to a new study from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce.

The study, released on Tuesday, found that just 22 percent of low-income students working while in school complete a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared with 37 percent of their higher-income peers. Overall, 57 percent of low-income working students fail to earn any credential within six years, compared with 46 percent of higher-income students working while in school, the study found.

Working while in school, depending on where the student is working and how many hours per week, has been shown to help improve student outcomes. One foundational study from 1975 on working while in college found that students employed on campus were more likely to persist through school. Other research has shown that working the right amount hours—typically no more than 15 hours per week—while in school can be beneficial for students’ academic performance. Working too much, however, can have a negative impact.

The new Georgetown study points to that issue. Because low-income students are more often in situations in which they would have to work more hours per week than higher income peers who also need to work, doing so could be detrimental to their progress. For students at any income level, the study found that as the number of hours worked per week increases, the “likelihood of good grades and completion” decreases.

“You can’t work your way through college anymore,” said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center and lead author of the report, in a statement. “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.”

According to the study, most higher-income students who work fewer than 15 hours each week earn grades of B or higher. Those higher-income students also have access to better jobs when they choose to work, according to the study. For example, 14 percent get jobs in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields, business, or health care. By comparison, just 6 percent of low-income working students got jobs in those fields. Low-income students are more likely to be employed in food service, sales, and administrative support jobs.

“Work experience in these jobs provides basic skills like conscientiousness and teamwork, but does not provide the deeper technical and general skills that foreshadow good career entry-level jobs,” the center said in a press release on the study.

With the Higher Education Act (HEA) up for reauthorization, lawmakers and thought leaders in higher education have proposed different ways to improve the Federal Work-Study (FWS) program to best benefit students who need to work to pay for school. NASFAA, for example, has suggested that policymakers revise the campus-based aid allocation formula and expand the definition of the community service requirement for FWS, among other changes.

The PROSPER Act, House Republicans’ bill to reauthorize the HEA, would authorize nearly double the current amount of funding for the program, but eliminate FWS eligibility for all graduate and professional students and replace the community service component with a work-based learning component. Among other changes, the PROSPER Act would also phase-out the base guarantee portion of the allocation formula, similar to NASFAA’s recommendation but with a 5-year timeframe instead of NASFAA’s recommended 10 years.

The Aim Higher Act, House Democrats’ reauthorization bill, would authorize funding for the program at $1.5 billion initially, with authorization increases of $250 million in each succeeding year through 2023, when funding would be authorized at $2.5 billion. The bill would replace the allocation formula with one similarly proposed for FSEOG (phasing out the base guarantee portion and basing each future fiscal year’s funding on a fair-share formula, an amount equal to the institution’s undergraduate student need from the preceding fiscal year), though it would also include graduate student need in the calculation, and include a “bonus allocation” for institutions that have demonstrated strong outcomes for serving and graduating Pell Grant recipients.

Still, researchers at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce encouraged starting to introduce the relationship between work and school earlier on.

“Education leaders should focus on building stronger connections between education and work beginning in the K–12 years,” said Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown Center and co-author of the report, in a statement. “Work experience provides the most value when it is connected to students’ long-term career goals.”


Publication Date: 8/28/2018

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