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Most college students work while in school, but the jobs aren’t equal

·10 min read
The Good Brigade—Getty Images

With the teenage unemployment rate near a record low, it’s clear that the current strong labor market and lingering effects of the pandemic are drawing many young people into the workforce. While some are forgoing college altogether to take advantage of favorable job opportunities, many are working while pursuing a degree: Education technology provider Everfi surveyed over 18,000 students who took an online course about paying for college, and 56% of them said that they planned to pay at least part of their tuition and expenses by working while in school.

“Working is now the new normal. Everybody is working in college,” said Nicole Smith, research professor and chief economist at the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce.

But not all work is created equal.

According to a report that Smith coauthored, higher-income students tend to work a moderate number of hours per week at the most desirable jobs and internships—positions that are likely to enrich their college experience and further their career goals. Compare that to lower-income students, who typically work more hours per week in fields like food service, sales, and administrative support.

“[It’s about] what you’re doing while you’re working,” Smith said. “Are you working in a job directly connected to your course of study, so that work becomes an internship or training? If you’re working in retail or fast food, sure you get money, sure you get exercise in time management. But there’s no real indication that you’re better off in terms of earning potential by the time you graduate.”

And even worse, these students might not graduate: Students who work long hours in less advantageous work situations may face mental health challenges as they attempt to balance work and school, and Smith’s report finds that low-income working learners are less likely than higher-income students to complete a degree or credential.

The disparity in working situations isn’t due to lack of desire or ability on the part of lower-income students; rather, it’s an issue of both affordability and access. Many of them must seek out jobs that pay enough to cover tuition and living expenses. Additionally, these students often lack the social capital of their higher-income peers. And because colleges and universities don’t always widely publicize career education resources, the world of plum internship and job opportunities can feel like an impenetrable black box.

“If you give a low-income student a great opportunity to work at a firm that’s directly connected to their degree, they’ll do it,” Smith said. “But if they’re not getting the proper counseling and information, then they don’t have knowledge about internship opportunities or agreements between their university and [employers].”

Inequitable access to career information and opportunities isn’t just bad for students. It’s bad for businesses and for the future of the American workforce.

“When we look at this from a societal lens, we are not truly equipping our companies to fully represent the communities they serve or work within,” said Christine Cruzvergara, chief education strategy officer at Handshake, an online job platform and community primarily for students and early-career professionals. “And we’re not doing a great job of ensuring that students are able to have social mobility in the ways they want.”

Roanlis Toribio Jimenez and Ashlyn Cook are both working college students, but their experiences on the job are vastly different and underscore some of these disparities.

Cook is a rising junior at Coe College in Iowa, where she studies business with a double major in public relations and a minor in communications. During the school year, she works about 15 hours per week as a community outreach manager at UniMovers, a national network of locally owned moving companies, and about six hours per week at her college’s writing center.

Cook’s freshman year was heavily disrupted by the pandemic. Disappointed and frustrated by what felt like an especially lackluster first semester spent learning remotely, she decided to seek out a part-time job or internship to make better use of her college experience.

“I walked away from my first semester of college thinking, Wow. What a wash,” Cook said. “My parents are helping me [pay for college]. I’m so grateful for that opportunity. I know it’s not an opportunity every kid gets, and I wanted to capitalize on it and do what I can to honor the decision my parents made [to help me].”

Fortunately for Cook, Coe College is heavily invested in helping its students secure jobs and internships; it’s one of the main reasons she decided to enroll there. Cook knew that Coe’s Center for Creativity and Careers (also called C3) was available to help with her job search, but she never actually visited there in person. Instead, she took advantage of the fact that C3 created Handshake accounts for all Coe students, and she used the platform to look for opportunities that were a match for her interests and skills.

In her role at UniMovers, Cook has many responsibilities related to communications and outreach, including managing the company’s blog and social media accounts and making media contacts. The job affords her flexibility—she works remotely and can generally make her own hours—and the opportunity to create a role based on her interests.

“We do a lot of brainstorming, and there’s a lot of camaraderie,” Cook said of her manager. “I had a lot of freedom to pick and choose what I’m interested in. It was a position that didn’t initially exist, so it’s awesome to see them recognize some of the talent and strengths I have.”

In addition to being tailored to her interests, Cook’s work ties directly to her major and provides her the opportunity to learn about certain programs and platforms before they’re covered in her classes.

“It’s funny that in a lot of classes I’ve taken this year, it’s been a little frustrating. I feel like I’m a bit ahead in some things because I’ve done them at my job,” Cook said. “It’s been a very educational and creative endeavor.”

Smith notes that this type of situation is optimal: Students can expand their professional networks and gain insight into the specifics of their chosen professional field, while still having adequate time for academic coursework. Unfortunately, many students find themselves far from this ideal.

Toribio Jimenez was born and raised in the Dominican Republic, but she has also lived in Germany and now the United States, where she is a rising senior at Clark University in Massachusetts.

Her experience in Germany ignited an enduring passion for learning about other cultures and perspectives that is borne out in her major: Asian studies with a minor in peace and conflict studies. She chose Clark largely because of its study abroad program. She plans to study in Japan this coming fall, and she hopes to eventually work in Asia.

Like Cook, Toribio Jimenez is a full-time student who works two jobs. She is a front desk assistant at Clark’s Career Connections Center and a warehouse team member at Amazon. But neither of these positions directly relates to Toribio Jimenez’s area of study, and in total she must work about 30 hours per week to pay her tuition and living expenses. She chose her job at Amazon primarily because she has worked in warehouses before and finds that these roles pay better than retail or customer service jobs. The position also affords her some flexibility in choosing her work schedule.

“[Working in college] was not much of a decision,” Toribio Jimenez said. “It’s something that I must do. I’m pretty much taking care of all of my [expenses] myself: school, housing, food. Working at [Clark and Amazon] combined makes enough for me to survive.”

A typical day for Toribio Jimenez starts at about 8 a.m. and ends 16 or 17 hours later, when she returns home from Amazon between 12:30 and 1:30 in the morning. Sometimes she gets home even later if there are still packages to process at the end of her shift.

The long hours can hugely detract from academics, which is frustrating for Toribio Jimenez as a self-described perfectionist. Often she would like to spend more time on a paper or assignment but isn’t able to, or she must ask for deadline extensions.

“At first, I was very against [asking for extensions],” she said. “Because I felt that if I asked for help, then I’m a failure.”

Although her mindset around asking for help has since shifted, she still finds that it can be grueling to constantly request accommodations that allow her to successfully juggle work and school, and her meticulously scheduled balancing act nearly collapsed this semester.

“I got to a point where I was just completely burned out,” she said. “I didn’t have the motivation to do anything. I actually missed a lot of days of work because I couldn’t get up. I also missed a lot of classes. My body and mind were just tired of taking care of other stuff and not taking care of myself.”

On top of her myriad work and school commitments, Toribio Jimenez also had to spend time this year figuring out how to navigate the complexities of a new institution as a transfer student; to save money, she spent two years at community college before transferring to Clark as a junior. She found that many Clark students didn’t share her experience of working nearly full-time while attending school and that although Clark had resources available, they weren’t always easily accessible.

“Clark has given me financial aid, but I don’t think they understand what it’s like to be a full-time student and pretty much a full-time employee. I feel like Clark is a very traditional school where they think students just study and don’t have anything else in life,” said Toribio Jimenez. “And yes, Clark does have resources. But you also have to really dig in to find those resources.”

Cruzvergara believes that colleges and universities must better prioritize career education and solve for the lack of transparency that Toribio Jimenez experienced. She has seen that at some institutions, the issue is one of mindset.

“[Sometimes there is] a very strong faculty voice that may feel like, ‘It’s not our job to help students get jobs. It’s our job to educate them,’” Cruzvergara said. “I’d argue it’s our job to do all of that. We want [students] to be great thinkers, and let’s help them connect those skills to jobs. It’s both/and.”

In other cases, institutions have counseling and career resources available, but they are not advertised widely enough, so students who don’t know they exist or who don’t have the bandwidth to search for them will lose out. Schools can solve for this by embedding information and resources into their programming for all incoming students, as Coe College did when it added all students to the Handshake platform.

“[Institutions have to] figure out how they will [prioritize career education] so that it’s woven into academics or into students’ experiences in a way that’s mandatory or that touches every student,” Cruzvergara said.

Smith argues that transparency around career opportunities and resources must start even earlier, in middle school, and that it must be done in a way that doesn’t prematurely funnel students into particular career pathways or fields. But she emphasizes that no single solution alone will bring about equitable outcomes for low-income students. In her report, she also recommends that colleges invest more in financial aid for students who need it most, and that these students receive better counseling so that they are not as risk-averse when it comes to taking out loans to pay for college.

“With the correct type of exposure, knowledge, and social networks—someone who can pick up the phone and make that phone call for you—you have a different basket of goods and opportunities in front of you,” Smith said. “And that’s the challenge. How do we create some kind of equity in the basket of goods that’s available?”

This story was originally featured on Fortune.com