The Educational Benefits of Student Employment

One clear trend among college students during the past several decades is the increasing proportion of students who maintain a job while attending school.  At Augustana, more than half of our students work on campus, while many more hold jobs off campus.  Typically, this phenomenon has been cast as a detriment to the college student experience since – as the argument goes – the obligations of work take away from the time that students might spend involved in co-curricular activities or studying for their courses.  I have sometimes heard folks talk about the ideal student employment as a position where the student can do their homework while sitting at a desk.  However, I’d like to suggest that work – especially if it is conceived as an educational experience – can be powerfully beneficial to our students’ development.

A few weeks ago I met with our Student Affairs senior staff to talk about ways that we can use our student data to support their work.  Soon our conversation turned to the possible educational impact of the Community Adviser (CA) position on the students who hold these jobs.  It’s time-intensive work that can sometimes be especially challenging when sorting through the whims and wiles of first year students.  And even though this position might seem to be a hybrid of co-curricular involvement and student employment, the requirements of the position obligate CAs to forego other opportunities on and off-campus.  So we thought it would be useful to test whether or not students who hold CA positions gain some unique educational benefit from the experience.

We chose to compare responses of CAs and non-CAs on one question from the senior survey that asks students to respond to the statement, “My co-curricular involvement helped me develop a better understanding of my leadership skills.”   The response options ranged from “strongly disagree” (1) to “strongly agree” (5).  The CA’s average response score was a 4.63, while the non-CA’s average response was a 4.26.  Statistically, this difference proved to be significant despite the small number of CAs (20) out of the total number of responses (511).  This suggests that there might indeed be something about a CA position that provides a unique educational benefit for those students.

While this specific finding might not qualify as the most rigorous quantitative analysis, it replicates other research on the educational benefits of student employment.  After examining the impact of work across the 2006 cohort of the Wabash National Study, my colleagues and I found that students who worked made gains on several aspects of leadership skills that non-working students did not (you can read the full study here).  Furthermore, the more hours per week that students worked, the larger the educational gain.  This held true even after we accounted for students’ other co-curricular involvement.

Now I’m not suggesting that co-curricular involvement is somehow frivolous.  There are lots of powerful educational benefits that can come from involvement in a variety of activities.  But these findings suggest that maybe work shouldn’t be considered a detriment to the student experience.  In fact, I would suggest that each of us who oversee student workers have an opportunity to uniquely influence their development in important ways.  We only miss that opportunity if we don’t conceive of the employment opportunity as a learning experience.  In the same way that we would like to develop our students as autonomous learners, we should hope to develop our student employees as autonomous workers.  That means giving them more than a simple checklist of things to do and instead, asking them to help solve problems and contribute to the quality of the working environment.

So I hope that you will take the time to think about your student workers as students, and see your role in overseeing their work as an educational one.

Make it a good day,

Mark

One thought on “The Educational Benefits of Student Employment

  1. A huge national study of the students who leave STEM fields found recently that # of hours worked per week did not predict the poor performance. In fact, in several categories, the students who stayed and thus were succeeding worked far more hours.

    I think you’re right that the key is that the experience be conceived of as an educational activity. It might be interesting to set up a much more extensive system of upper class students mentoring younger ones (like a cycling research lab structure) so that far more of the students’ work was clearly educational. I certainly got a lot out of grading and holding office hours as an undergrad.

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