Why a part-time job can pay off

July 11, 2003

Working on campus can enhance degree study, say Janie Barnett and Myrtle Ching-Rappa

As fees rise and grants and scholarships decline, students must borrow more or work more to meet the cost of attending college. In particular, those from lower-income backgrounds tend to take on part-time jobs, driven by the fear of being unable to repay their loans. Today, more than 70 per cent of US college students work, while the proportion in the UK is also rising.

But is this a bad thing?

There has been much in the press about the harmful effects of student employment. But studies have shown positive and negative effects. It seems that working can increase a student's determination to graduate and boost their academic performance. But too many hours spent at work can take its toll.

It is generally agreed that students learn transferable skills through part-time work. These include promptness and regular attendance, time management, problem solving, teamwork and cooperation, organisational skills and work ethic. They also develop relationships with employers and co-workers that can result in work references and mentoring.

A study of students aged 13 to 20 years old, carried out by Stephen Heyneman, professor of international education policy at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee, confirms that teenagers who work are better able to use their time wisely, have higher levels of motivation and more self-esteem. Heyneman concludes that despite gaining lower academic scores, Americans are more productive because as working teenagers they learn teamwork and can adapt to employment more easily then workers from other countries.

Alexander Astin, director of the Higher Education Research Institute at the University of California at Los Angeles, defines student involvement as "the quality and quantity of physical and psychological energy that the student invests in the college experience". He says working on campus can enhance the college experience, especially if the work is related to the student's field.

Research by Vincent Tinto, professor at the School of Education at Syracuse University, New York, found that dropout rates were lower for those students working part time on campus. Positive results have been found in other studies. Gordon Van der Water, higher education project manager with the Education Commission of the States, found that work does not impair academic performance. In fact working ten to 20 hours every week improves performance and persistence, while those working fewer hours enjoy a smaller boost. Similar results were found in separate studies conducted by Central Missouri State University and National Association of Student Employment Association with Cornell University, New York.

Astin also conducts annual surveys of the incoming freshman year and their expectations of college. A majority of those surveyed say that they are attending college to find a good job. Employers indicate that transferable skills and work experience are just as important as grades.

If students are considered the "clients" on a college campus, then universities should provide more mentoring for undergraduates - not just graduate students - and more flexible curricula that can accommodate work schedules. Employers need to be more open to hiring students while they are still studying in order to produce a well-educated workforce. Employability should be the joint responsibility of universities and the community.

We can't stop students from working. So we must improve the type of work they do, or make it more relevant to academics to maximise work-based learning. Students should be given the chance to learn about the world of work and develop accurate expectations about their chosen career.

Janie Barnett and Myrtle Ching-Rappa are past presidents of the National Student Employment Association in the US. They are in London conducting a workshop on managing student employment for the Association of University Administrators.

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