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July 25, 2005 | Volume 3 | Number 14
The Effect of Employment on Student Outcomes in High School and Beyond
How does student employment affect students' personal, social, and academic outcomes?
Many American students consider employment an integral part of their high school experience. NCES (National Center for Education Statistics) data from 1992 show that more than two-thirds of high school students were employed during their senior year, with 22.7 percent of those students working more than 20 hours per week. Most students worked in nonacademic jobs, with almost 25 percent employed in the food service industry, 14.5 percent working as a grocery clerk or cashier, and 11.8 percent working in sales. The vast majority of students earned between $4.25 and $6 per hour.
Students in the United States work more than students in most other, postindustrial countries—more than triple the average amount of time their European and East Asian peers spend working, in fact. Researchers have taken many different approaches to examining the issue of employment and its effect on student outcomes and, as a result, have reached a wide range of conclusions. Some have concluded that increased time spent working results in decreased time spent on school activities and, thus, lower academic achievement, whereas others suggest that work experience builds character, strengthens organizational skills, and gives students a sense of responsibility that may actually increase achievement. Other researchers have proposed a “threshold” model, which posits that students will experience positive outcomes from work experience, as long as the time spent working does not exceed certain threshold values. The research highlighted in this issue of ResearchBrief examines the issues associated with student employment and the extent to which employment may, or may not, benefit students.
Herbert Marsh and Sabina Kleitman conducted the study highlighted in this issue of ResearchBrief (see below for full citation). The researchers used data from the National Education Longitudinal Survey of 1988 (NELS), which collected data on students in grade 8 and then again in grades 10 and 12, as well as two years after graduation. The authors investigated a variety of variables, including demographic information (socioeconomic status, ethnicity, gender, prior achievement); outcome measures (standardized achievement, grades, self-esteem, attendance, delinquency); postsecondary experience (educational and occupational); and the total number of hours students worked while attending school. Given such a rich array of data, the researchers were able to control for a wide variety of background variables and prior outcomes, as well as look at the effect of working on multiple outcome indicators, both academic and nonacademic.
The data source included 12,084 students who graduated on time and did not transfer or drop out of school, although for statistical reasons, a more conservative figure of 4,757 students was used to determine statistical significance (the smaller the population, the less likely it is that differences in outcomes will be found to be statistically significant). The authors analyzed the effect of working on the various outcome measures at each grade, as well as for future grades (so that, for example, they could examine the effect of working in grade 8 on outcomes in grades 10 and 12, as well as after graduation).
At the grade 8 level, 25 variables (10 background and 15 outcome) were examined as potential predictors of the number of hours students were likely to work. The relationship was mixed, with six significantly negative predictors (honors/recognition, parental expectations, educational aspirations, occupational aspirations, delinquency, and preparation for school); three significantly positive predictors (homework, extracurricular activities, and leadership roles); and six predictors deemed not significant (achievement, grades, attendance, control, self-esteem, and bad habits—defined as alcohol, tobacco, or drug use). As students aged, however, the negative predictors increased, with no significant positive predictors present at the 10th or 12th grade level, eight significantly negative predictors present at the 10th grade level, and twelve significantly negative predictors present at the 12th grade level. Although significant, these findings appeared to have little relation to the variance in number of hours worked, accounting for only 4 percent of the variation in hours worked in grade 8, 3.5 percent in grade 10, and 3.7 percent in grade 12.
Next, the authors looked at the effects of work on grade 12 and postsecondary outcomes, while controlling for background variables and previous academic outcomes. Students who worked longer hours in grade 8 were found to have lower grades, attainment of fewer Carnegie units, lower occupational aspirations, and more bad habits by grade 12, as well as lower career aspirations after graduation. They were, however, more likely to hold leadership positions in school and less likely to be unemployed two years after school. The negative effects of hours worked, however, increased at both the 10th and 12th grade levels. By the 12th grade, students who worked longer hours had significantly lower achievement and grades and had attained fewer Carnegie Units and honors. They also had poorer attendance, had lower educational and occupational aspirations, were less likely to hold leadership positions, and were less engaged in extracurricular activities (among other outcomes). They were also less likely to enroll in—or stay in—college. The only positive outcome was that students working longer hours were less likely to be unemployed two years after high school.
Next, the authors examined the “threshold” model of work, which predicts that students will benefit from working a limited number of hours—up to a specific threshold—after which the effects will level off or become increasingly negative. On most indicators, the authors could find no support for a threshold model. When a relationship was detected, it was more likely to suggest the lack of a negative effect for a small number of hours worked than a positive effect.
The authors did find one notable exception to the negative trends associated with working. They analyzed how students spent their earnings and found significant positive effects on 19 of 23 measures for students who saved some or all of their earnings for their future education. Even here, however, the value diminished as students worked more hours.
As students work longer hours, they achieve at lower levels academically, are more likely to engage in negative behaviors, have lower academic and career aspirations, and are less likely to hold leadership positions, engage in extracurricular activities, and attend or stay in college. These negative effects are persistent across gender groups, racial groups, differing socioeconomic status levels, and academic abilities.
Students in grades 8–12 who work during the school year were the focus of this study.
The authors excluded from the data dropouts, students who transferred from their schools, and students who did not graduate with a high school certificate within the traditional time allotted. Although such exclusion may not alter the general findings (it seems unlikely that students who work and then drop out will mitigate the negative academic outcomes), it is worth noting that the findings pertain most directly to students who graduate from high school on time and with a traditional certificate. There was also an unexplained drop in the percentage of students working in the 10th grade (68.9 percent worked in grade 8, 28.4 percent worked in grade 10, and 70.7 percent worked in grade 12), although the difference may be the result of the way in which the pertinent question was asked, which differed for the 8th grade students.
Marsh, H., & Kleitman, S. (2005). Consequences of employment during high school: Character building, subversion of academic goals, or a threshold? American Educational Research Journal, 42(2), 331–369.
Table 386: Employment of 12th graders, by selected student characteristics: 1992
National Center for Education Statistics
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Dan Laitsch serves as ASCD's consultant editor for ResearchBrief. Laitsch is an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, Canada, and is coeditor of the International Journal for Education Policy and Leadership.
Copyright © 2005 by Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development
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