A new study suggests that the cliché of a full-time college student working a low-wage job to pay her tuition and getting lower grades than she’d have if she wasn't working is more fiction than fact.
If the student works fewer than 20 hours a week, she may, in fact, have a higher grade point average than her jobless peers and be spending her paychecks on “beer money” or other non-tuition expenses.
These are findings outlined in “Parental Transfers, Student Achievement and the Labor Supply of College Students,”  forthcoming in the Journal of Population Economics, by Charlene Kalenkoski, an associate professor of economics at Ohio University, and Sabrina Wulff Pabilonia, a research economist in the Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Division of Productivity Research and Program Development. The two economists wanted to learn how work affects students’ academic performance and what might motivate them to take on more hours of work.
Kalenkoski and Pabilonia used cross-sectional data from BLS’s National Longitudinal Youth Survey, initiated in 1997 with a sample group of young people born between 1980 and 1984, who were followed through 2004. They studied the whats and whys of student work for 2,356 Americans who completed at least one term of college between fall 1996 and spring 2004.
Of those students, 46 percent at four-year institutions and 72 percent at two-year institutions were employed during their first semesters in college. Four-year college students who worked at all averaged 22 hours a week of work, while two-year students averaged more than 30 hours.
Kalenkoski and Pabilonia looked at how changes in tuition and parental contributions affected how much students worked. What they found suggests that most students don't work to pay tuition but to cover other expenses, frivolous or otherwise.
A $5,000 reduction in parental contributions to tuition, they discovered, resulted in students at four-year colleges taking on an additional three hours of work each week. A student making $10 an hour (generous considering that many student jobs pay minimum wage or slightly more) would, over the course of a year, earn an additional $1,560 by working those extra three hours -- not nearly enough to compensate for smaller parental contributions.
For students at four-year institutions, the relationship between net price of schooling and hours worked was statistically insignificant, meaning that higher costs did not compel students to work more. Among students at two-year colleges, an increase in tuition by one standard deviation resulted in an additional two-and-a-half hours of work each week, not enough to pay the difference.
Together, Kalenkoski said, these 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.”
She added: “We’re not saying there aren’t students who work to pay much of their tuition, we’re just saying it’s more likely they’re taking out loans to make up for whatever isn’t covered by other kinds of financial aid or parents.”
Because of insufficient data, the authors were unable to consider the impact that student loans had on whether students worked and how much they worked but, based on their findings, Kalenkoski said, it seems clear that “student loans really are a cushion that helps students keep their work hours down. If they didn’t have these student loans available, many more students would be working and those already working would likely work more hours.”
Work and GPA
In their analysis of academic performance, the economists found non-working students at four-year colleges had an average GPA of 3.04, while students who worked between one and 20 hours a week averaged 3.13, and students who worked more than 20 hours a week averaged a GPA of 2.95. Some work, then, was better than none and more work was worse than some.
A student who typically works six hours a week taking on two more hours of weekly work “is probably going to see a pretty small change in GPA, if any at all,” Kalenkoski said. The difference in performance comes when students take on significantly more work. An increase of 15.20 hours, one standard deviation, of work for a four-year college student resulted in a 0.18 lower GPA.
Overall, she said, work had “a much larger effect on GPA for two-year college students.” The average GPA for jobless students was 2.82, while it was 2.93 for students who worked for fewer than 20 hours each week and 2.94 for students who worked more than 20 hours. An increase of one standard deviation for a two-year college student, 19.78 hours, resulted in a 0.53 lower GPA.
Throwing this into the mix of other studies, though, it’s unclear quite what employment means for academic performance. A paper based on data from the 2004 National Survey of Student Engagement published last year in the National Association of Student Personnel Administrators Journal found that working more than 20 hours a week hurt students’ grades , while working fewer than 20 hours a week resulted in grades that were just about the same as those who didn’t work at all.
The challenge and the reason for differences, Kalenkoski said, may be that "it's very difficult to get any data, let alone good data, on the lives of college students."