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.