The University Network

Why Is Working In College Harder For Low-income Students?

It’s common for students to work while in college. In fact, nearly 70 percent of students from diverse economic and cultural backgrounds work while they are enrolled.

The difference is, some students are working for extra spending money and others are making sure they can afford to eat.

New research from Georgetown University sheds light on the many challenges that students from low-income families face while working in college.

“You can’t work your way through college anymore,” Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “Colleges need to do a better job of providing the right support services to ensure their working students have the means to reach graduation and gainful employment.”

Let’s compare

Students from high-income families tend to work part-time jobs, while low-income working students are more likely to work full-time.

This is because high-income students often don’t have to work for rent, food or the other things necessary for survival, said Nicole Smith, chief economist at the Georgetown Center and co-author of the study.

The full-time jobs lower-income students take on often interfere with classes, which impacts academic performance.

Low-income students working more than 15 hours a week earn grades of a C or lower, on average. The average grades of their high-income peers, who work less than 15 hours a week, is a B or higher.

Then, there is the matter of the type of jobs that further distinguishes the two student groups.

Wealthier students also have a greater chance for internships and assistantships that relate to their career field and can boost their resume. While 14 percent of high-income student workers have jobs in high-paying science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), business, or healthcare fields, only 6 percent of low-income student workers can say the same.

“Their decision to work is more forward looking,” said Smith about high-income learners. They can look for internships that prepare them for life after graduation, she said.

Low-income student workers, on the other hand, are more likely to work in food service, sales and administrative support jobs.

While jobs in these fields can put money in their pockets, they don’t equip the students with valuable, real-life experience in their field of study or add to their resume.

The research also showed that working extra hours can inhibit a student’s ability to graduate on time.

Only 22 percent of low-income working students graduate with their bachelor’s degree within a six years compared to 37 percent of high-income student workers.

There are 14 million working students in the U.S., and 6 million of them are low-income. A disproportionate amount for the low-income workers are black, Latino, women and first-generation college goers, which are all underrepresented groups in higher education.

What can be done?

In order for low-income working students to achieve academic success similar to their high-income peers, they must figure out what the best options are within their field of study, said Smith.

But students shouldn’t be expected to do this on their own.

“Education leaders should focus on building stronger connections between education and work beginning in the K-12 years,” Smith said in a statement. “Work experience provides the most value when it is connected to students’ long-term career goals.”

Smith believes that high schools should teach classes on financial literacy and student loan management, so students can be financially savvy before they reach college.

Another key factor is making sure “low-income students are making good decisions on the types of jobs they take,” said Smith.

Internships and jobs in a student’s field of study can propel them into a successful life after college. If a student spends his or her college career working in a restaurant or an unrelated sales position, they might not develop the connections or networking skills to earn them their desired post-graduation job.