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Danger Time for College Students: Working at a Job More than 15 Hours a Week May Do More Harm Than Good, Especially for Underserved Students

ACT Center for Equity in Learning’s Report Also Highlights Need for Lifelong Learning to Advance Equity

WASHINGTON, D.C.—Aug. 28, 2017—Working more than 15 hours a week while in college may do more harm than good for college students from underserved backgrounds, according to a new report from the ACT Center for Equity for Learning. The result of working more hours contributes to “disparities in students’ academic and career success” is one of the findings of “Who Does Work Work For? Understanding Equity in Working Learner College and Career Success.

Over time, students from all backgrounds who work more than 15 hours weekly tend to fall behind in their academic progress, as well as in their earnings, debt, and early career outcomes. The stakes for underserved groups (members of racial or ethnic minorities, first-generation college students, or students from low-income families) are especially high.

The analysis by Sarah Blanchard Kyte, Ph.D., is based on National Center for Education Statistics data of a nationally representative cohort of first-time freshmen over a period of six years to understand when and why working during college contributes to disparities in students’ academic and career success. The data show that most students (59 percent) work during college.

The report suggests working a more moderate number of hours may be a key strategy for students from low-income families trying to get through and get ahead in college. It also finds that employers and others can assist by trying to adapt to accommodate the real-world demands on college-aged working learners.

The findings come on the heels of the Trump administration’s proposed budget that calls for a $500 million cut to the federal work-study program. The administration also proposes new criteria for who qualifies for the work-study program. If enacted, these changes would lead to only 333,000 students receiving work-study aid in 2018, compared to the 634,000 students receiving it in 2017, according to some estimates.

The report states: Among students working 15 or fewer hours, 76 percent work off campus and 61 percent receive no work-study. This suggests that students who work fewer hours benefit not only from fewer hours of work, but also from work arrangements that accommodate the rhythms of the semester and disproportionately, from work experiences set within their college or university.

Jim Larimore, chief officer, ACT Center for Equity in Learning, says, “We know that work-study and other considerations provide a smart way for learners to earn income in a way that supports them in their goal, which is an associate or undergraduate degree. Throughout the economy, we believe we need to build in more ways to help workers at every point in their careers become working learners. These ideas are central to our effort to support closing gaps in equity and achievement.”

Education as a Lever for Equity: Troubling Signs

A companion report from the ACT Center for Equity in Learning also reveals anxiety among the workforce as students go back to school and Americans pause to think about the meaning of Labor Day.

The report, “Equity in the Opportunities, Support, and Returns to Working and Learning Among U.S. Adults,” concludes that those who have successfully navigated the U.S. education system—people with a bachelor’s degree—have less confidence in it and more reservations about their ability to get ahead through hard work. On the other hand, adults who are disadvantaged in the labor market by the lack of a college degree remain more optimistic about education and equity.

Survey analysis in the report finds that a college degree is necessary but not sufficient for staying competitive in a changing economy. The American worker now must evolve into a working learner; this is a “valuable way to cultivate internal talent pipelines, employee satisfaction, and to level the playing field between workers of different educational backgrounds,” the report states.

For the vast majority of employees, becoming a working learner carries with it a substantial increase in earnings, even when a credential is not completed and independent of working learner’s age. Greater awareness of the returns for nontraditional students may offset anxieties about the costs of further education.