How Many Students Can Actually Work Their Way Through School?

It might not be possible for too many more undergraduates to find jobs these days.

Get a job. It's one of the more common prescriptions you'll hear offered up to students who worry about the cost of a college education these days. And it makes a certain degree of sense. Sure, working too much is one of the leading factors associated without dropping out. But working at least a few hours each week is good for a resume and your bank account.

Here's the problem: We might have reached a natural limit for how many students can realistically find work while in school, at least until the economy rebounds. The two graphs below are adapted from Department of Education data* on student employment covering selected years from 1970 through 2010. They illustrate a point that's both obvious and easy to overlook: In a bad job market, it's a lot tougher for an undergraduate to land employment.
This first graph illustrates the trend among full-time undergraduates, whose employment levels peaked in 2000 at 52 percent. That number first dove after the tech bubble, and then again after the great recession, after which it settled at 39 percent. Notice the number of hours worked as well. These statistics cover an era when college became more expensive and more low-income young people began attending. Predictably, more students got jobs, and those students who did worked longer hours (The red, green, and purple lines are divided by hours per week). That is, until the economy flew off the rails. 

There's a similar trend among the part time students, who are traditionally more likely to work. Again, their overall employment level took a big dip once the economy went to hell. (Apologies for this, but because I've entered data in 5 year intervals, the second chart actually smooths over a 5 percentage point drop and recovery that occurred between 2000 and 2005).

I don't want to over-interpret these numbers. There are a whole host of factors that could influence the proportion of students working in a given year, from the economy, to the availability of financial aid, to cultural issues. It could potentially be self-selection at work: a lot of students today might just assume they can't find work and so don't try. It's also possible that the job openings that exist don't pay enough or aren't sufficiently convenient to interest most undergrads.

But here's my take: There are a limited number of jobs that are open to students (a college town can only have so many barristas, after all), and more students than ever to compete for them. Meanwhile, it's hard time for anyone to get work, especially those who don't have a degree. Perhaps we shouldn't expect it to be any easier for young people still looking to earn theirs.


*Because of methodological issues, the DOE data on hours worked has some holes. As a result, the bottom three lines on each chart may not add up to the top line figure.