The last 40 years have seen dramatic changes in the hours worked at jobs by full-time undergraduates -- with notable increases until 2000, and then a period of relative stability until a sharp drop in 2009, according to research (abstract available here) released Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Both the rise and fall of student working hours could be of concern to some educators. During the period of rapid increase in hours worked, many students exceeded the hours that many experts recommend as optimal for those seeking to finish a degree on time. But to the extent that some of those working long hours may have no choice -- due to tuition increases and the lack of desire or ability to borrow -- the drop in work hours due to a shrinking of available positions may be problematic for many students.
The paper was published by Judith E. Scott-Clayton, assistant professor of economics and education at Teachers College of Columbia University.
Scott-Clayton examines three different periods: 1970s through 2000, 2000-2008 and 2009 on. During the first (long) period, the average number of hours worked by full-time undergraduates each week increased to 11 hours, from 6 hours. It then generally held steady until a dramatic single-year drop in 2009 to 8 hours a week.
These figures are notable, Scott-Clayton writes, in that they are for full-time undergraduates, not those who have for generations worked significant hours while also attending classes part time. And because the averages include non-working students, the hours of those who were working were greater. By 2000, the average working student was employed an average of 22 hours a week -- far more than the average time students spend on academic work out of class, and far more than many experts recommend. (As noted in the NBER paper, while some student aid officials believe it is ideal not to have students work, many believe that there are advantages, but that these evaporate -- and time to degree grows -- when students work more than 10 or so hours a week.)
Most of the data in the survey come from federal employment and demographic databases.
Other figures document the work trends as well. The proportion of full-time undergraduates working rose to 52 percent in 2000 from 33 percent in 1970. Then between 2005 and 2009, the rate fell from 48 to 40 percent -- a very sharp decline for such data over a period of just five years.
Scott-Clayton notes that the reasons for working various hours vary by the individual, and that all of those individual calculations affect the national trends. But she argues that changes in the composition of who goes to higher education account for only some of these patterns. Among the key factors she identifies for the growth of work hours are the growth in the 1970s of federal work-study programs and, in later periods, of rising tuition and credit constraints.
The recent drop in student work hours seems more clearly attributable to the decline in available jobs, she writes, not decisions on the part of students. The declines were so substantial, she writes, that the rate of students working and average hours per week were near 30-year lows. Further, for the first time ever, 18-22 year olds were more likely to be in college and not working than working and not going to college.
A key question looking ahead, she adds, is whether the hours per week and percentage of students working shoot back up when jobs become more plentiful. Given the role of credit constraints in apparently encouraging more work, she suggests that the determinant may be whether student aid outpaces or lags increases in tuition rates.