Working Learners

A new study from Georgetown University finds that three-quarters of college students work, but too rarely is the work connected to their studies.

October 28, 2015

The days when the typical college student went from high school to college and then college to work are a distant memory.

But a new report released today by Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce paints a surprising picture of just how many of today's students are already in the workforce -- and argues that colleges and the business community must better integrate students' academic and work experiences.

"We need to reconcile these two things. These are whole people who face demands on their time at school and work and we have to maximize the value in this," said Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown center. "We live in a world now where everyone who goes to college is working."

The report details that 70 to 80 percent of college students are active in the U.S. labor market. That's about 14 million people, or 8 percent of the country's total labor force. About 40 percent of undergraduates and 76 percent of graduate students work at least 30 hours a week, with about 25 percent of all students simultaneously enrolled as full-time students and working full time.

The Georgetown researchers found that going to college and working is better than going straight to work after high school in terms of higher wages and career advancement, but that working full time hurts disadvantaged students the most. Students who work more than 15 hours a week suffer academically. At the same time, many students max out student loans to pay for college, because they can't work their way through college as students once could. A student working full time at the federal minimum wage can't afford to cover the cost of tuition at most colleges.

The report also found that about one-third of working learners are age 30 or older and are typically upgrading their credentials to stay up-to-date in their current jobs, earn a promotion or transition to a new career.

What Kind of Work?

The issue of college and work -- and the belief that some work is good for students -- has infiltrated the presidential campaign trail, at least on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton's debt-free-college plan would require students to work 10 hours a week, although most student workers surpass that hourly bar. Bernie Sanders has also called for expanding the federal work-study program to benefit more low-income students.

To the report's authors, the problem isn't only that many students are working more than is good for them academically. It's also that the work isn't linked to the career path they're pursuing in college. In the past, there was an expectation that employers would provide on-the-job training after high school or college. That situation isn't as widespread anymore.

Today, employers are looking to hire entry-level employees with previous experience in the field. Yet it's not uncommon for students to graduate without work experience related to the career path they've studied for in college.

Carnevale said the best leverage for strengthening the tie between work and education is offering an incentive for businesses to provide more paid internships that are beneficial to the degree and career paths of students.

"There aren't enough internship opportunities in America, so you leverage that by building a tax credit for employers who engage in internships that are essentially governed by schools," he said, adding that the federal work-study program can become a larger part of this.

Last year the Obama administration provided some guidance about setting up federal work-study in outside companies and making clear that there had to be a learning component, but it wasn't really in the colleges' interest, said Mary Alice McCarthy, a senior policy analyst with the New America Foundation.

"The colleges rely on work study for a low-wage workforce and there's a problem there. The standards for work-study ought to be work in your field," Carnevale said.

There are also inequalities in who has access to internships and in the types of internships that are offered, McCarthy said.

"Everybody would like to think about ways for more of this to happen and federal policy makers would like to figure that out, but employers tend to look toward more elite institutions," she said. "It depends on the employer. Good community colleges really do have great opportunities for work-based learning that allow for on-the-job training."

Nursing programs at local hospitals, manufacturing firms and employers looking to team up with their local colleges to fill a technical workforce do a good job at this, McCarthy said.

But there is a bias by businesses in favor of students from elite institutions and those students from wealthier backgrounds who can volunteer their time for free.

"You're asking employers at some level to take some risk and some additional cost by having these folks who may not be ready to work there, either with unpaid internships or on-the-job training," she said. "Outside of federal work-study program employment on campus, we don't have the public policy levers to make that happen."

Oberlin College President Marvin Krislov favors expanding work-study at community service jobs in cities and towns near college campuses. In these positions, students not only have a part-time job, but it's one that could provide broader skills such as critical thinking, teamwork and problem solving that employers seek in almost all jobs.

And nonprofit community organizations benefit in having a student employee. Oberlin works with the Bonner Scholars and Bonner Leader programs to provide underrepresented and first-generation students community service, work-study jobs with nonprofit or government-based organizations. The Bonner program provides scholarships to high-need students in exchange for weekly community service commitments.

"It's a win-win for the community and the student," Krislov said. "It does require collaboration between the sponsoring organization, college, university and student. Many of these relationships are long-term … I've seen a number of student résumés show impressive experience during the school year and it teaches the students and gives them the references they need on the job market."


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