The McCourt School of Public Policy’s Center on Education and the Workforce found that over the last quarter century, around 70 percent of U.S. college students worked a paid job at some point in their college careers in a study released Oct. 28.
According to the report, called “Learning While Earning: The New Normal,” 30 percent of all working learners are aged 30 and older, and 50 percent of the demographic group work at least 40 hours per week. For undergraduates and graduate students overall, 40 percent work at least 30 hours per week. However, 34 percent of those working learners still have at least $25,000 in student loan debt.
Additionally, the report calls for new policies to assist students in balancing their educational ambitions with their employment.
Authors Anthony Carnevale, Nicole Smith, Michelle Melton and Eric Price have conducted research for this project for the last two years using data from five different databases, including the American Community Survey and National Postsecondary Study Aid Study. With help from the Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, the authors set out to measure and capture the day-to-day struggles of today’s typical working learner.
“While we know that students work during their years in college, much of our perspectives are anecdotal,” Smith said. “We wanted to be able to add to that discussion by quantifying who’s working, the extent they’re working and how trends have changed over time, trying to find what the new student looks like.”
The report delves into a variety of trends, ranging from the types of jobs students work to their overall levels of income based on age. For Smith, one of the most surprising findings was the proportion of women -— around 60 percent of working learners — who are earning while enrolled in school.
“We have all of these really burdened students … and the way our society is structured is that great child-rearing responsibilities fall on mothers,” Smith said. “The idea that the highest fraction of working-learners population is female came as a big surprise.”
According to Smith, another area of surprise is the relationship between working learners and parenthood. At least 19 percent of all working learners have children, a point of significance when it comes to discussing the issues faced by students struggling to balance academic, professional and personal lives.
“Given that it is true that most [students] have to work, we must ask ourselves what can be done to make this process streamlined while making sure [working students] have the opportunities available that they would certainly have if they aren’t working,” Smith said.
The study also sets forth policies that the authors believe will assist our nation’s learning earners. The proposed policies center around helping students develop stronger ties with the worlds of work and education as well as incentivizing institutions to have a direct hand in aiding students balance their academic and professional lives.
“When the momentum builds on a topic like this, you start to realize that change can be effective,” Price said. “The community as a whole, from students to faculty to businesses, should recognize that there must be room for working and learning, and policy discussions should reflect this.”
Price is also a working learner himself, currently completing his masters in the McCourt School while also working part-time. Price highlighted his personal experience with many of the observations raised in the report.
“I worked full-time for about eight years following the conclusion of my undergraduate degree, and going back to school was difficult,” Price said. “You face time constraints, constraints on personal relationships … even with these struggles, I recognize the importance of continuing my education and lifelong learning.”
For Samuel French (COL ’17), working off-campus at a local bicycle shop is both frustrating and valuable.
“I began working to have some basic income to utilize,” French said. “But I don’t see it so much as simple work. I get to build on my skills and improve my time-management. It’s not all positive, but I’m improving my own situation as a student and as a prospective employee for the future.”
Jonathan Ulmer (COL ’18), a Georgetown library employee, said earning learners need support from the university and community if they are to find success not just in their academic lives, but also in their experiences after university.
“As someone working 14 hours a week, it would be more than a stretch to maintain a full class load,” Ulmer said. “The more our community as a whole understands and chooses to address the needs of learning earners, than our situation would only improve, and improvement is something that most of us are looking for.”
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