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Part-time employment correlated with greater degree attainment and labor force outcomes

New research suggests that, among first-time community college students, students working part time while in school may be more likely to complete their degree and maintain employment after graduation than other students.

To counter rising college tuition costs, postsecondary students have been working in increasing numbers in the past years. During the 2011–2012 school year, nearly half of all first-time students enrolled in a public 2-year institution were working: 18% worked 35 hours or more per week, while 14% worked 21–34 hours weekly, and 11% worked 20 hours or less. Working while enrolled is correlated with other experiences students may have while enrolled and can impact student employment outcomes upon graduation.

In a new report commissioned by the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), education researchers from RTI looked at how working while enrolled affected first-time community college students’ enrollment and post-college outcomes. The report—Working Before, During, and After Beginning at a Public 2-Year Institution: Labor Market Experiences of Community College Students—summarized students’ outcomes separately based on whether they worked while enrolled and based on the number of hours worked. The report analyzed previously collected data from the NCES’s 2012/14 Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study.

Analysis of these data found that in 2014, 3 years after first enrolling, more students who had worked 20 hours or less during their first year had achieved an associate’s degree (20%) than students who hadn’t worked (10%) or who had worked full time (9%).

The study also found that student workers were more likely to be employed after leaving school. Among the cohort of community college students who began school in 2011–2012 and were no longer enrolled in school 3 years later, 20% of students who did not work during their first year were unemployed in 2014—which is more than twice as high as the percentage of unemployed students who worked full time (6%) or part time (4%–9%) during their first year.

Previous studies have found that working full time while enrolled and enrolling as a part-time student are negatively associated with postsecondary completion rates. This study suggests that students who work some hours may actually achieve better outcomes than students who do not work during postsecondary education, which has implications for institutions of higher education that want to ensure students’ ability to complete their degrees while offsetting educational costs.