Low-income students face steeper challenges in combining work and learning

Although a large portion of college students (around 70 percent) work their way through college, working low-income students are less likely to attain a bachelor’s degree than their higher-income peers, according to new research out of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

In exploring the employment choices, grades, and completion rates of the nation’s working learners, the report indicates that working students from higher-income families typically have jobs that complement their field of study. Fourteen percent of them find employment in “a lucrative career field,” compared with 6 percent of low-income working learners, who are more likely to work in food service, sales, and administrative roles.

Hours spent working a key factor

With a stronger financial safety net, higher-income students also tend to work fewer hours than low-income students. At all income levels, the more hours students must work, the more likely their grades—and chance of completion—will suffer. According to the report, nearly 60 percent of low-income students who work more than 15 hours a week earn grades of C or lower, while 65 percent of higher-income students working less than 15 hours a week earn grades of B or higher.

Ultimately, just 22 percent of low-income working learners earn a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 37 percent of higher-income working learners.

Unequal access to support for working students

Noting that “having a job is far less of a choice for low-income working learners,” the researchers call for greater focus on interventions that would help minimize the challenges faced by working low-income students. “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,” said Anthony P. Carnevale, director of the Georgetown Center and the report’s lead author.

Specifically, the report calls on institutions to educate students about the costs and benefits of working while in school and how to pursue work that better serves their long-term professional objectives. Without those opportunities to grow their network and develop industry-specific skills, low-income students find themselves “starting off on a ladder that’s two rungs lower” when searching for post-college employment, Nicole Smith, the chief economist at the Georgetown Center and one of the co-authors of the report, told MarketWatch.

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