Understanding the Working College Student

New research shows that students are working more and juggling a multitude of roles, creating anxiety and lowering graduation rates.
By Laura W. Perna

Related Charts

"Ten to fifteen hours per week, on campus.”

This is the typical response from faculty members and administrators who are asked how much undergraduate students should work at paying jobs while attending college. Available research supports this recommendation. Quantitative studies consistently show that retention rates are higher for students who work a modest number of hours per week (ten to fifteen) than they are for students who do not work at all or those who work more than fifteen hours per week. Research also shows increased academic success for students working on rather than off campus.

Unfortunately, this simple recommendation is no longer feasible or realistic for the typical undergraduate. Most college students are now not only employed but also working a substantial number of hours, a fact not widely understood or discussed by faculty members and policy makers. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 2007 nearly half (45 percent) of “traditional” undergraduates—that is, students between the ages of sixteen and twenty-four attending college full time—worked while enrolled. About 80 percent of traditional-age undergraduates attending college part time worked while enrolled. (See figures 1 and 2.) The share of full-time, traditional-age undergraduates working fewer than twenty hours per week has declined during the past decade (to about 15 percent in 2007), while the number working between twenty and thirty-four hours per week has increased (to about 21 percent in 2007). Today nearly one in ten (8 percent) full-time, traditional-age undergraduates is employed at least thirty-five hours per week. Contrary to the common belief that community college students are more likely to be employed than students at four-year institutions, the distribution of undergraduates by the number of hours worked is similar at public two-year, public four-year, and private four-year institutions, after controlling for differences in attendance status.

Working is now a fundamental responsibility for many undergraduates. But understanding how employment affects students’ educational experiences is complicated by why students work. Many students must work to pay the costs of attending college. As College Board policy analyst Sandy Baum argues in a 2010 collection of essays I edited, Understanding the Working College Student: New Research and Its Implications for Policy and Practice, while some of these students are awarded “work” as part of their financial aid package, other students either do not receive work-study funding or find such awards insufficient to cover the costs of attendance. Some traditional-age students may use employment as a way to explore career options or earn spending money. For other students, particularly adult students, work is a part of their identity, as Carol Kasworm, a professor of adult education at North Carolina State University, and other contributors to Understanding the Working College Student point out. Regardless of the reason for working, trying to meet the multiple and sometimes conflicting simultaneous demands of the roles of student, employee, parent, and so on often creates high levels of stress and anxiety, making it less likely that students will complete their degrees.

Reconceptualizing Work

Although students who work have an obligation to fulfill their academic responsibilities, colleges and universities also have a responsibility to ensure that all students—including those who work—can be successful.

One obvious approach is for colleges and universities to reduce students’ financial need to work by reducing the rate of tuition growth and increasing need-based grants. Colleges and universities can also reduce the prevalence and intensity of employment through financial aid counseling that informs students of both the consequences of working and alternative mechanisms of paying for college. Nonetheless, given the recent economic recession (and its implications for tuition, financial aid, and students’ financial resources) as well as the centrality of jobs to students’ identities, many will likely continue to work substantial numbers of hours.

Even on campuses where relatively few students work and those who do work relatively few hours and primarily on rather than off campus, the applicable research suggests that reconceptualizing “work” and its role in students’ learning and engagement could be beneficial. Often professors and administrators believe that employment pulls students’ attention away from their academic studies; they define any time spent in paid employment as necessarily reducing the amount of time available for learning. Qualitative data indicate that this time trade-off is real for many working students. But what if working were considered not as detracting from education but as promoting student learning? From a human-capital perspective, both employment (especially when defined as on-the-job training) and formal education build students’ human capital. Given this theoretical perspective as well as the reality of student employment, colleges and universities should consider ways to transform employment into an experience that can enhance students’ intellectual development.

Understanding the Working College Student offers several strategies for transforming the role of employment in students’ educational experiences. One potential strategy is to develop connections between employment and learning by incorporating into coursework the knowledge gained through work-based experiences. Another strategy is to recognize formally the contribution of workplace experiences to student learning by awarding course credit for relevant employment experiences. Several organizations offer mechanisms for assessing and awarding course credit for work and other prior experiences—for example, the College Board’s College-Level Examination Program and the American Council on Education’s College Credit Recommendation Service.

Supporting Working Students

Colleges and universities can also create a supportive campus culture for working students. To do so, faculty members and administrators must understand the learning and support needs of working students. While the national data paint a picture of student employment “on average,” individual colleges and universities must also understand the patterns of employment—and the implications of these patterns—on their own campuses. Colleges and universities must educate both professors and administrators about the prevalence of student employment and how to connect students’ workplace and academic experiences and then change institutional policies, practices, and structures to promote such connections. In particular, higher education institutions, especially those with large proportions of students working large numbers of hours, should consider whether their structures are oriented toward meeting only the needs of “traditional” students—that is, students enrolled full time and working ten to fifteen hours per week in on-campus positions.

Creating an institutional culture that promotes the success of working students will require a campuswide effort that involves the faculty and administration. Colleges and universities should encourage, reward, and support faculty members who adapt their instructional practices to promote the educational success of working students. In Understanding the Working College Student, Paul Umbach, associate professor of higher education at North Carolina State University, and his co-authors demonstrate the educational benefits to working students when their instructors encourage cooperative learning, set high expectations for student achievement, and create assignments that require students to demonstrate deep learning. A campus teaching center may also support faculty efforts to help working students.

Giving students the opportunity for meaningful one-on-one interactions with their professors is also critical to fostering a supportive campus culture, and such interactions may be particularly beneficial to working students. For example, Marvin Titus, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Maryland College Park, uses quantitative analyses of data from the Beginning Postsecondary Students survey to show that the likelihood of completing a bachelor’s degree within six years increases with the frequency of student-faculty discussions in the first year of college, even after taking into account other variables. Mary Ziskin, Vasti Torres, Don Hossler, and Jacob Gross, researchers with the Project on Academic Success at Indiana University, use qualitative analyses to identify examples where instructors do not offer necessary assistance, either because they do not realize the challenges facing working students or because they do not believe they are obligated to offer any additional assistance.

Ziskin and colleagues also conclude that the academic success of many adult students may be jeopardized by their belief that their jobs, family commitments, and age make them “out of place” on campus. This problem can be remedied. Through one-on-one interactions, professors and administrators can promote adult working students’ sense of belonging and validate their presence on campus, thus encouraging their academic success.

Colleges and universities should also consider other ways to adapt the delivery of instruction as well as academic and social support services to the needs of working students. John Levin, professor of education at the University of California, Riverside, and his colleagues suggest that by adapting these structures, institutions not only allow working students to become actively engaged on campus but also promote students’ self-confidence and motivation to succeed in college.

Fostering Student Success

The research collected in Understanding the Working College Student provides numerous suggestions for how to help working students succeed in college. These include offering courses in the evenings, on weekends, and in distance education formats; establishing course schedules in advance; offering students access to academic advising and other support services at night and on weekends; offering online course registration and academic advising; providing child-care options; and providing space for students to study between work and school. Colleges and universities can also help working students connect their employment and educational experiences through career counseling and occupational placement.

Many undergraduate students struggle to meet the multiple demands of work, family, and school roles. Colleges and universities have an obligation to ensure that all students—including working students—can succeed on their campuses. Reframing work as potentially enhancing student learning and ensuring that prevailing institutional policies, practices, and structures recognize that most undergraduates will have jobs while enrolled are important steps in the right direction.

Laura W. Perna is professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania and a member of the Academe advisory board. Her scholarship examines how public and institutional policies enable and restrict college access and success, especially for students from historically underrepresented groups. Her e-mail address is [email protected].


I can say that those working students have more brighter future tha the professional students

I am one of those students enrolled full time, that works too much. I work Monday to Friday, 35 hrs a week, and then at a different job on Saturday and Sunday for 16 hours (8 each day). My GPA is definitely suffering for it. I have a 3.1, but if I want to get into the graduate program I want, I need 3.6 at least. I need to work less to study more. I make too much money to get student loans, and so I pay for my own education, but I can't work less because I can't pay for it all without student loans! It's a catch-22.

Dear "I am one of those students",

I know exactly how that catch 22 feels. I had to leave a well-paying corporate job in order to receive enough financial aid to cover tuition. Now I barely survive and I am literally getting by day by day. I still work twenty hours a week at a low paying student job, but the extra stress of working my prior corporate job and attending school has just been replaced with financial stress. You are not alone! Hang in there! It WILL be worth it.

I am currently studying Entrepreneurship and I am in my last year of my college education. I am working on a startup company that will allow college students the ability to earn extra income without committing to permanent employment. From my own experiences, I saw this issue as a market need and I hope that my web based platform will mitigate some of those financial burdens that students are faced with.

I am in the same deal. I work at least 40 Hours a week, take 5 classes and luckily my dad started a college fund for me when i was a kid to pay for school. Because i make a decent amount and have the college fund i don't get any assistance (besides a few thousand in grants, which i'm sure you are eligible for too) and i refuse to tap into my college fund for personal spending. I pay for my house off campus, my truck, insurance, my bike (for commuting, traffic would add at least 10 hours a week to my schedule if i had to drive my truck every where), and everything else. It seems to me that student financial aid is meant for those who feel entitled but wont work for college. If they got denied they just wouldn't go. My GPA was a 3.3 but this semester will be around a 3.6 if i were to guess because I am just working harder now.

Financial aid is for the opposite of entitled students. I had received a few thousand each year in grants, and a few each year in loans from financial aid. The rest I had to take out privately from sally mae, where interest rates are very high. You acknowledged that you were lucky to have a college fund, but denounced those that can't afford college which is a little contradicting. I work 40 hours a week and that is for bills, rent, car, groceries, and whatever else. My GPA is a 3.65 and my mental health is in the negatives, hoping this lifestyle temporary, as I am a senior. My loans are sitting until I finish college, and can work full-time in my field, and weekends in the restaurant at least through my twenties.

Financial aid is meant for college students who can not afford college. Not everyone grew up lucky enough to have a college trust fund. Some of us barely had money for pencils in school. I have my own place, car, and responsibilities, but if I add in college expenses on top of it with my job, I would not be able to attend. Let alone get passing grades. When you make a comment like that, it becomes direspectful to people who need the aid. Very one sided way of looking at it. Just because you don't need it, doesn't mean some of us don't need it.

I am an international student and i have accepted at one of the american universities studying civil engineering, i have been granted in-state tuition fees and have applied for another scholarship. Is it possible for an engineering student to have the time to work 20 hours per week? I've heard that engineering students won't have the time to work because of all the studying and assignments they have to do, is that true? Working and studying, is it possible to pay off $17,000 per year?

I work full-time at goodwill, as well as am enrolled full-time at college with a double major, while being an active member of the Sorority. My financial aid covers my tuition and room and board, because I have several grants for my Majors (High School Education and English) and I maintain a 4.0 GPA. It's not necessarily easy but it is very possible and still have a social life.

I am curious on how you are able to maintain your employment at GoodWill while still attending college Full-Time.
I'm told I cannot attend College Full-Time while working Full-Time.
Will you please fill me in on details on which Goodwill and how all this is possible.

I am one of those students who juggle both school and work. I take 7 classes (21 hours) while working 40 hour weeks. (whilst maintaining my 3.9 GPA and staying in the honor society!) It's very stressful. This article made me realize I am not alone out there. I am glad to have come across it.

I worked about 35 hours a week while attending school full time and was on the Dean's List. I went to school four days a week and worked nights and weekends from ages 18 to 21. I was perpetually tired, but I made it through.

I think the thing that professors need to realize is that it's not a matter of wanting to work; it's a matter of needing to do so. I was on my own during college and had my own apartment (cheaper than the dorms, plus I could keep it year-round) and there were food, utilities, and other things that needed to be paid for. Other students, even if they live at home or in the dorms, need to pay their way too.

Just give four years of your life to the military.

I'm a working student but I receive 500 pesos per week that I have to budget in all expenses in school which is not enough.

It is possible, I am working 40 hours a week and taking 12 credit hours a semester. I am double majoring in General Management and Human Resources. I pay for my apartment, car payment, car insurance, food etc. Its hard, but I find time for myself to relax.

Very insightful

For the past 2 years I have taken one course at a time, toward a PhD, while running a small company that I started 36 years ago. Dr. Perna suggests that employment builds human capital. I agree. The experience of working can provide context to theory; it can add authenticity and legitimacy to a student's insights; it can foster empathy for the varied ways we struggle to survive and succeed. But even in a supportive department, being a non-traditional student can be challenging. At some point, the traditional graduate school trajectory requires committee formation, prelims, and various defenses. Standard markers of progress assume that a student may have an assistantship, but are inflexible to more intense demands on time. The structure that is designed to keep students on track may then marginalize the working student. Faculty and administration should strive to maintain the growth of students' human capital by investing in structures and programs that consider the special circumstances of working students.

I work more than 40 hrs a week sometimes even working 90 hrs per week and I still attend school full time taking 18 units. Its hard and very stressful, but its for a little while.

when was this article made? the exact date

I know for sure it is possible for you to accomplish working full time and school. For me it was actually easier then just school by itself. I have been providing for myself since I was 16. God has always blessed me with good jobs. When I started attending college full time in 2013 I was working a full time jobs, running my startup and taking 18 credit hours. My GPA was 3.7 I wasnt stressed out or anything and could finish school within two years time management was my key and also I never had cable just internet which made less destraction. Now im back in school and have a fiancee that has a good income and my business basically runs itself yet I can focus enough on school this is actually the most time I had in my life and the least responsibilty I have but yet I have too many distractions and my GPA is suffereing. I felt more responsible when I was younger then I do now but my issue now is that I have too many options and success from another degree or even the 1st degree has made a difference to me because I still get great offers for jobs without disclosing that I have a degree. To each its own but the tough part is now for me instead of with time precious.

The bigger issue for me while working 30 a week is variables. Scheduled tests and quizzes are no problem. It's the extra assignments or changes in schedules which kill me. I got my week mapped out in great detail to make it all work, and if one thing gets thrown off, I'm left with a late night, which eats into my sleep time(what are naps?) or just forgetting the assignment all together. The professors them act like I'm a slacker who doesn't care. When I first went to school, I could afford health insurance and spending money with a pt job. Now I got grown up responsibilities and health concerns. I work because I can't afford 1750 a semester for insurance and oral surgery. Wish they could be a little more flexible and accommodating. Almost every job I've had is more accommodating than the professors.

Honestly relate to this a lot. I go to a University and have 16 credit hours per semester and I have to work 20-25 hours a week just to keep up with living expenses on campus/ textbooks. During the summer I have to work 40-50 hours a week to save up enough so that I can only work 20-25 hours during the year. It 's a vicious cycle. Because of it I'm actually doing a research paper on the subject and came across great source.

Me as well, I am doing a research paper about the Lived Experiences of Students who juggle from work and studying and indeed this article is such a good starting point. I really love reading all of the comments because these comments encourage me to continue what I am doing right now.

We recently published another article on working students by the author of this article, Laura W. Perna, and Taylor K. Odle. You can read it here.

The problem is not can you work and go to school full time, it's been done by many and continues to be. The problem is that not all colleges and universities offer enough diversity in course hours and times available in order to be able to acquire a degree within a reasonable amount of time.

For instance, I work full time and go to school part time. I tried full time and my grades suffered, it was just too much to work and I was also in the Army National Guard. Now, I have a husband and pets and we both have large families and friends and need to be able to attend to them and to our own needs well enough. The real issue I have is that because in order to afford the cost of living in California (very expensive compared to most states), we both need to be working. Full time. Unfortunately, my university does not offer the classes for my major at times when I can go for many of the courses which are required in order to complete it and earn my degree.

We need later classes, weekend classes, more online and distance learning options, and evening hours of availability for resources such as academic advising hours, etc. I should not have to take time off of work, (which I need for doctor's appointments, vet visits, dentist appointments, DMV appointments, etc...), in order to take advantage of these resources which are so readily available to students in the more traditional setting. Campus administrators need to recognize this as a real issue and reformat their policies, practices and structures to accommodate this issue. I guarantee there will be a decrease in drop-out rates and an increase in yearly graduates. At this rate, it will take many more years to acquire my degree than it needs to. It's not a matter of if can I put my nose to the grinding stone, it's a matter of can I get a working grinding stone? I did the military thing, I put in 8 years and college is pretty well paid for because of that, BUT I only have so long to use my benefits before they TIME OUT. I've been taking classes most of my adult life, trying to figure out what I wanted to do while also working and deployed for 9 months. Not working is not an option for my husband and I, he cannot carry us with this cost of living and is why we are both in school. He already has a BA and barely makes $18/hour. I make $18/hr and I only have an AS in Humanities. We are both striving to improve our work prospects as well as to be in a career we both really enjoy. Accessibility will be the key for me, and I suspect it will also be for many, many more working students.

Thank you Laura for your research and thoughtful article.

As a STEM student, It's very stressful to work, going to school, attend labs, volunteer for undergraduate research, and make time to study complex material. Sometimes I feel like I am looked down upon by my PI because I don't put in as much time into my research as other students do. Students who have time to be in the lab excel and make greater progress on their research. Trust me I would LOVE to spend most of my time performing experiments and learning this fascinating material, but I have to pay my bills and buy my own groceries. In addition, I need to sleep at least 7 hours because I can't function when sleep deprived. I've tried to reduce my sleep many times but my brain won't allow it :(

It is time for the Department of Education and the legislators to realize that they are hurting college students (of all ages) and potential college students by maintaining that a student must enroll in a minimum of 12 credit hours a semester in order to qualify for full financial aid. Given the ever-increasing numbers of students who must work over 30 hours a week simply to live, policy-makers should lower the number of credit hours required for full-time status to 9 per semester.

In addition to helping those employed on a full-time basis, this change would also be of assistance to other non-traditional students, such as parents or grandparents who are raising children. Being able to access the full amount of financial aid available could enable some students to work less and study more. The reality in higher education is that a larger percentage of enrolled students qualify as non-traditional each year. This is one thing that the government could do to help them have a better chance of making it to graduation. Since colleges and universities take their cues from the regulations under the auspices of the Department of Education, those institutions frequently a 12 credit hour minimum eligibility requirement for other types of financial aid as well. A change at the federal level would open up more opportunities for students at the college level.

Here are more detailed statistics with percentages of working students by state and the hours they work: https://www.rentable.co/blog/old-college-try/ This shows education not as affordable as it claims to be. Measures should definitely be taken to support working students. At least I'd like to see universities encourage working students.

Add new comment

We welcome your comments. See our commenting policy.

Plain text

  • No HTML tags allowed.
  • Web page addresses and e-mail addresses turn into links automatically.
  • Lines and paragraphs break automatically.
This question is for testing whether or not you are a human visitor and to prevent automated spam submissions.