The financial reality facing today’s college students is pretty different than it was decades ago. First of all, the cost of higher education has skyrocketed. The price of attending a private, nonprofit, four-year college, for example, has more than tripled since 1975. And, while the image of the full-time, parent-supported college student who starts working only after completing her degree was never the only reality for students, today’s learners must deal with the fact that they can’t even hope to work their way through school. Worst of all, perhaps: the student jobs they’re likely to find won’t boost their careers after graduation.
(Photo Credit: Austin Community College/Flickr)
Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce recently published a report called Learning While Earning: The New Normal in an effort to help us all understand the reality facing students who combine work and learning, and the impact this path is having on them, our economy, and on the workforce in general. Let’s take a closer look at the findings.
1. No matter the difficulties they’ll face, it’s better for individuals to go to college than to go right to work.
The results of this study line up with other recent research that shows attending college is still the right financial decision for most people, despite the high cost of earning a degree. It’s a choice, and a commitment that pays off in the long run, even when students need to work while going to school.
2. Students have worked a lot for decades; the big change is to the student loan debt they shoulder.
The idea of working your way through college is, for most people, a thing of the past. The cost is simply too high. Due to the job losses of the great recession, fewer students work now than in previous years; between 70 and 80 percent had jobs from 1989 to 2008, while only 62 percent worked in 2012.
The money working students earn isn’t going as far as it used to. Following the 1989-1990 school year, the average student loan debt was a little over $10,000, adjusted to 2014 dollars. In 2014, it was more than $18,000. It’s been widely reported that the graduating class of 2015 was the most indebted ever, and it’s likely that the situation will be even worse for students graduating in the years to come.
3. Working learners’ employment experience is different from that of workers who aren’t in school.
It turns out that students who work are more likely to have long-term career goals than their working-only counterparts. However, working learners are also more likely than the other group to be working in a transitional job that isn’t related to their long-term career ambitions. In fact, more than half of working learners are employed in sales, support, and food/personal service occupations. Although many of these student workers are bound to move on to other fields after graduation, it’s worth noting that their employment often isn’t aligned with the career they’re preparing to enter.
Anthony Carnevale, director of the Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, says that federal work-study programs can play a bigger role in making students’ work experiences more meaningful.
“The colleges rely on work study for a low-wage workforce and there’s a problem there. The standards for work-study ought to be work in your field,” Carnevale told Inside Higher Ed. He added, “There aren’t enough internship opportunities in America, so you leverage that by building a tax credit for employers who engage in internships that are essentially governed by schools.”
Ideally, students (especially those who are working full-time) would have job experiences that gave them some training in their fields. With the rising cost of college and student loan debt, it would be best if students could do work that supports their professional futures.
For more information, check out the full report from Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce. To learn more about which schools offer students the best return on their tuition investment, see PayScale’s College ROI report.
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