It’s nearly impossible to work your way through school, but it’s much harder for low-income students

While the bulk of college students work these days, their experiences vary.
Low-income students are more likely to work longer hours and less likely to work in a field related to their college major, according to an analysis released Tuesday by Georgetown University’s Center for Education and the Workforce.
That combination is proving detrimental to their ability to complete school successfully. Nearly two-thirds of high-income students who work 15 hours per week earn grades of at least a B, while nearly 60% of low-income students who work 15 hours per week or more earn C or less.
The bulk of low-income students with jobs work in fields like food service, sales and office support. Wealthier students tend to work in engineering, technology and business.
Jobs that take up too much time can hurt students’ studies and low-income students are more likely to find themselves working these kinds of jobs, the study suggests. About 26% of low-income students work full-time while in school compared to about 22% of high-income working students.
The time spent working — which has become an increasingly necessary part of college life as costs rise — exacerbates the country’s already segregated higher education system, experts say. Other research indicates that under-represented and low-income students are more likely to end up in colleges with fewer resources, making it less likely they’ll make it through school.
Or as Nicole Smith, the chief economist at the Georgetown Center and one of the co-authors of the report, said: Income level may play a bigger role than competence in a student’s success at college. Just 22% of low-income students who are working graduate with a bachelor’s degree in 6 years compared with 37% of high-income working students.
“Education is supposed to be the leveling factor,” Smith said. However, there is a very different reality for low-income students. “This is a race that you can never win, the odds are stacked against you,” she added.
Just 22% of low-income students who are working graduate with a bachelor’s degree in 6 years compared with 37% of high-income working students.
It’s not just the difference in hours worked that creates a gulf between low-income and high-income students’ experience, it’s also the type of work they do. The bulk of low-income students with jobs work in fields like food service or sales and office support, the study found.
By contrast, about 14% of working students from high-income backgrounds have jobs in well-paying fields like technology, engineering or business. Just 6% of low-income working students have jobs in these fields, the study found.
Wealthier students are more likely to land in these jobs because they tend to have more contacts and social networks to advice them on the best strategy to find such high-paying jobs, Smith said.
Without access to internships and other industry-specific jobs, low-income students are at a disadvantage when searching for their first post-college role. “You’re really starting off on a ladder that’s two rungs lower,” she added.
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