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‘Help Wanted’ for Underserved College Students Who Also Work, According to Research


IOWA CITY, Iowa, Sept. 25, 2018 – Many underserved students are not getting the help they need from their colleges to stay in school while they work to pay for it, according to new research from ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning.

A third (32 percent) of surveyed universities and colleges failed to offer resources to help underserved students balance the demands of working and earning money while they were learning. And another 10 percent of higher education institutions were only considering offering such resources, not actually providing them.

Even more troubling were the colleges that had no such resources nor plans to implement them, either because of insufficient budget to do so or a perceived lack of need for such services. This is despite the fact that underserved students are overrepresented among those who are working learners in college.

The report, “Characteristics of Experiential Learning Services at U.S. Colleges and Universities,” by John H. Pryor, found that the majority (58 percent) of institutions offered such specialized resources and a very small amount (1 percent) had previously offered such assistance but were not currently doing so.

When institutions did offer specific services for underserved students, they were not likely to do so through a dedicated career services staff person. Most programs reported working with other offices that had campus-wide responsibilities specific to such populations as first-generation students or racial/ethnic groups. In other cases, the career services office had a specific program for underserved students but not a dedicated staff person for that role.

“There are many explanations for why equity remains an issue in the United States, and this report addresses a little-known but important aspect of the conversation,” said Jim Larimore, Chief Officer for ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning. “Working while in college can provide valuable experience in the workforce; these experiences can help students determine if a career is a fit and help them improve their workplace skills. But underserved students need greater access to the types of work and internship experiences that relate to their interests, mentoring to develop and refine workplace skills, and help to balance the demands of working, learning and living. We believe if institutions did more to explicitly help underserved students we would go a long way to closing equity gaps that persist.”

Working Learners Receive Little Support


Most colleges and universities did not provide specific support for working learners, nor underserved or traditional students. One in three institutions reported that they provided, at best, counseling in how to balance work and school. About as many (28 percent) offered extended office hours for students who work during the day. Only about one in five (18 percent) offered information sessions on how to balance work and school. Even fewer colleges (9 percent) offered support for flexible academic deadlines, such as assignments and tests, for students who worked.

Opportunities to Improve


The resources offered on campuses included (from highest to lowest amount of student use): résumé reviews, one-on-one appointments, on-campus career fairs, practice interviews, résumé workshops and group sessions by career services. Overall, about one in three career services professionals thought students did not use these resources at a high level.

The report suggests that colleges and universities could improve the situation by offering one-on-one assistance, expanded office hours and targeted services.

“Both upper-level administrators who set campus budgetary priorities and employers who decide to offer a paid or unpaid position need to recognize the potential that working learners possess as contributors to the learning environment and as the future employees whose talents will drive innovation and productivity in the United States,” said Larimore. “Improved support for working learners is an investment that will pay dividends for generations to come.”

Study Specifics


The researchers defined these work-and-learn opportunities as follows:

  • Internships that integrate knowledge learned in the classroom with practical applications and skills development in a professional setting. 
  • Cooperative education programs that allow students to work full time in areas aligned with their career goal or major. Students alternate between full-time student and full-time employee in positions related to their interests to combine a degree with significant work experience. 
  • Apprenticeships that allow students to obtain a recognized credential while gaining on-the-job experience. Apprentices shadow their employer and must provide instruction on knowledge in related technical subjects. An apprenticeship is typically full time and can be a year or more. 
  • Federal work-study positions that are partially funded through the federal government. Although usually on campus, some work can be off campus. 
  • Practicums that place a strong emphasis on linking academic knowledge with real-world application while being carefully assessed by a senior member of the field. A practicum does not necessarily lead to a credential, although certain types of practicums, such as residencies, do. 
Researchers partnered with the Cooperative Education and Internship Association (CEIA) to survey its members who held higher education positions whose duties included helping students find employment.

About ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning


ACT’s Center for Equity in Learning supports research that focuses on closing gaps in equity and achievement. The Center works to produce actionable evidence to guide thought leadership and inform changes in policy and practice that will lead to improved learning and achievement.

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