Research Sheds Light On Students Who Work While In School

By Staff
October 10, 2009

Recent research about the relationship between college student performance, numbers of hours they work at on and off-campus jobs, and how they spend working income offer insight on the multitasking lives of undergraduates.

According to Inside Higher Education, nearly 50% of all full-time students and 80% of part-time students work while in school. While it might be expected that these conflicting priorities would diminish student performance, recent studies demonstrate that the impacts are more nuanced. Related research sheds light on how work money is spent.

As reported in Inside Higher Education, Gary R. Pike and co-authors conducted a study which confirmed earlier findings that students who work more than 20 hours a week get lower grades than students who don't work.

Even more interesting conclusions can be drawn from his findings on students' level of engagement. When examining factors such as student-faculty interaction and collaborative learning activities, he noted that for students who work less than 20 hours a week, engagement depends on whether they work on campus or off. Those working on campus for 20 hours or less report higher levels of engagement across all five factors measured. However, those working off campus demonstrate better performance on only two of the five levels. And, while those working on campus reported a net positive gain in grades, those who working off campus experienced a negative effect.

When examining students who work 20 hours or more, he found that whether they work on campus or off, they tend to be more engaged than students who did not work at all. However, their academic performance suffered as a result. Pike suggests that the students who work longer hours have developed strong time management skills. Academic performance is another issue.

Another study, also reported in Inside Higher Education, and conducted by Ernest T. Pascarella and Ryan D. Padgett, colleagues at the University of Iowa's Center for Research on Undergraduate Education, examined impacts of student work on other valuable character traits, including critical thinking, moral reasoning, socially responsible leadership, and psychological well being. They found that students who work off-campus more than 20 hours per week have lower critical thinking ratings but that their psychological well-being and leadership skills are higher.

More recently, Inside Higher Education reports that two economists looked at the relationship between student grades, hours worked and student spending, seeking to shed light on how work affects academic performance and what might motivate students to work more hours. Their findings confirmed the conventional wisdom that four-year college students who work more than 20 hours a week tend to have lower grades than non-working students. It also demonstrated that students who work less than 20 hours per week have higher grades than students who don't work at all. However, for students at two-year colleges, results were slightly different. Students who worked had higher average GPAs, no matter how many hours they worked, than those who didn't work.

The researchers also theorized on how students' working dollars are spent. They compared the costs of two and four-year colleges to the amount of hours worked by attending students, and found that in both cases the amount of hours worked had little to do with tuition costs. Charlene Kalenkoski, principal researcher from Ohio University, said that the findings are evidence that, on average, "students don't work to pay tuition, they work to have beer money," money for entertainment, money to pay other expenses, just not their tuition.

The findings of this research, and additional studies to come, provide much fodder for discussions among campus administrators and faculty who must deal with the realities of life in a world where students' time is increasingly split between studying and generating income.

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