American Demographics



David J. Lipke

More college students combine employment with studies.

Keg parties, spring break, and late nights are all part of college life for most students. But for an increasing number, so is something slightly less fun: employment. A growing number of college students are combining full- or part-time work with their studies, according to a recent report by Thomas Mortenson, a senior scholar at the Center for the Study of Opportunity in Higher Education, and publisher of a research newsletter called Postsecondary Education Opportunity.

Using the most recent data from the Census Bureau’s Current Population Survey, Mortenson found that in the fall of 1998, 14 percent (1.4 million) of all full-time college students were employed full-time, up from 8 percent (0.6 million) in 1987. An additional 38 percent (3.8 million) were employed part-time, slightly up from 37 percent (3 million) in 1987. In other words, more than half (52 percent) of all full-time students now work while attending college

Among part-time college students, however, not much has changed. Seventy-one percent (3.8 million) were employed full-time in October 1998, about the same percentage as in 1987. But slightly more part-time students are part-time workers today than in the past – 16 percent in 1998 (0.9 million), compared with 15 percent in 1987 (0.7 million). The total employment rate among college students has increased for all age groups, with the greatest growth coming from those age 18 to 21, the traditional college years, and the time when enrollment is most likely to be full-time.

Employment rates by gender are fairly equitable, with 63 percent of male students working in 1998, compared with 65 percent of females. College women aged 18 to 24 are slightly more likely to work than men. However, among older students, men are more likely to be employed. Mortensen postulates that the trend may be a result of older female students taking on another job: child-rearing.

Interestingly, racial and ethnic differences abound. For example, Asian college students, whether full- or part-time, are significantly less likely to work at all during the school year than their peers. In 1998, 43 percent of Asian students were employed, compared with 67 percent of whites (non-Hispanic), 61 percent of blacks (non-Hispanic), and 62 percent of Hispanics. This can be partly explained by the fact that Asians are also the student group most likely to be enrolled full-time (81 percent) compared with 65 percent of white college students, 64 percent of blacks, and 59 percent of Hispanics. Among full-time students, blacks are most likely to work full-time – 13 percent of them do, compared with 9 percent of whites, 9 percent of Hispanics, and 7 percent of Asians.

In addition to the Census survey, Mortenson also used data from a UCLA study, “The American College Freshman: National Norms for Fall 1999,” to uncover differences between student employment in public versus private colleges. Among freshmen at public universities, 3 percent worked full-time, 22 percent worked part-time off-campus, and 27 percent worked part-time on-campus. Among freshmen at private universities, 2 percent worked full-time, 15 percent worked part-time off-campus, and 34 percent worked part-time on-campus. Experts believe working part-time on-campus is the best way to integrate employment and academics successfully, according to Mortenson.

Why are more students choosing to work through school? For many, it’s sheer necessity, as the cost of financing a college education has increased faster than inflation and family income. According to the State of Washington Higher Education Coordinating Board, the average cost of tuition and fees at a U.S. public university was $583 per semester during the 1979-80 school year, but grew to $2,271 in 1996-97, an increase of more than 400 percent. Eighty percent of college students attend a public school.

An important ramification of this trend is the increasing amount of time it takes the average student to complete their bachelor’s degree, says Mortenson. And many students with low household incomes aren’t finishing college at all. In the early 1980s, 23 percent of students in the bottom quartile of household income who entered college obtained their degree, while today only 15 percent do.

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