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Working while in college might hurt students more than it helps

Anthony P. Carnevale, Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce

Source: CNBC

Back-to-school season is in full swing for students throughout the educational pipeline. On college campuses, many students are starting their journey from youth dependence to adult independence—and making their first and probably one of the largest investments of their lives. For most, that means taking out college loans, assuming student debt, and finding a job to help stay afloat.

It didn’t always use to be this way. Since 1980, tuition and fees at four-year public colleges and universities have risen 19 times faster than average family incomes. Given the costs of college, working while enrolled is the new normal for today’s students; eight out of 10 students work while in college. But the reality is that working while in school doesn’t leave enough to cover living and tuition costs. You just can’t work your way through college anymore.

Working while learning takes a greater toll on low-income students. There are about six million working learners who are also low-income, and they are disproportionately women, Blacks, and Latinos. These working learners are more likely than their higher-income peers to work more than 15 hours per week, leaving less time for their studies. And rather than pursuing a professional position, many devote more hours each week to dead-end jobs. Working longer hours at these jobs may allow low-income students to earn more money in the short term. But it’s usually never enough to cover their college and living expenses.

So what does this mean for grades and likelihood of completion? Where and how many hours you work is key. Fifty-nine percent of low-income students who work 15 hours or more, leaving them with less time to study and complete assignments, had a C average or lower. You could be worse off in the long run if your job is so overwhelming that you fail classes or quit the academic program all together. This is sometimes the case for low-income working learners, who are less likely than their higher-income peers to graduate on time.

The reality is that low-income students’ financial situations often prevent them from attending more selective colleges and universities. As such, they are more heavily concentrated in shorter programs that provide them with less institutional support to help them graduate on time—even though they need support the most.

Having to work long hours isn’t the only setback for low-income students. Often, their quality of work experience doesn’t prepare them to get good jobs after graduation. We define a good job as one that pays family-sustaining earnings, at least $35,000 for workers ages 25-44 and at least $45,000 for workers ages 45-64.

Especially in a tight labor market, recent college graduates need directly applicable work experience to land a good job straight out of college. But the reality is that in a paid services job, a student does not learn much more than how to show up on time. This student will not fare as well when applying to jobs against candidates who have experience directly applicable to the role. So while low-income students tend to work more hours, the nature of the jobs they often take don’t prepare them for a career job out of college.

On the other hand, high-income students do not have to work—and they often don’t. When they do work, they tend to pursue professional, unpaid internships for 15 hours per week or less, leaving them with enough time to maintain good grades. Internships or apprenticeships give them an advantage when seeking a job after graduation in the form of valuable, firm-specific experience and connections.

In the end, working in college may be a necessity, especially for low-income students, but it creates additional challenges. And even after graduation, low-income students can still be left with debt. It’s no longer the case that students can work in the summers to pay for college and prepare for their first job, reaching financial independence at age 26. After celebrating graduation, students today face at least an additional four years until reaching financial independence.

The need for postsecondary education and high-quality work experience has created a new stage in the life cycle that everyone has yet to figure out. And one way to start is to provide more than just buzzword solutions to help the students who need it the most. Low-income students need more financial support and access to quality work experience. We need to fund paid work experience for these students in their field of study. Paying students to engage in relevant work is the best way to set them up to begin a prosperous career after graduation. With better pay in their entry-level jobs, low-income students will also be better positioned to pay off their student debt—and reach financial independence sooner.


  • Eight out of 10 students now work while in college.
  • This can help students pay the bills but in the long run, it may do more harm than good — especially for low-income students.
  • More than half of students who work 15 hours or more had an average of C or lower.
  • The quality of their work experience often doesn’t prepare them to get good jobs after graduation.

Dr. Carnevale is Director and Research Professor at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. CEW is an independent, nonprofit research and policy institute affiliated with the Georgetown McCourt School of Public Policy that studies the link between education, career qualifications, and workforce demands.

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Sources: Georgetown CEW analysis of data from the College Board, U.S. Census Bureau, Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Education and National Center for Education Statistics.