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Eye on Psi Chi: Summer 2017
Do You Work
and Attend College?
Paul Hettich, PhD, DePaul University (IL)
View this issue in Digital and PDF formats.

Are you one of the 14 million persons who works and attends college? According to Learning While Earning: The New Normal, between 70% and 80% of students are working learners (Carnevale, Smith, Melton, & Price; 2015). In this column, I summarize some characteristics of working learners and highlight key issues they face.
Working and Its Impact
First, let’s review why jobs are important for college students—besides generating income. If you have little or no job experience, I urge you to acquire it before entering the workforce. The National Association of Colleges and Employers (2016) reports that 91% of employers prefer applicants with either relevant (65%) or any type of work experience (26%). Not only do jobs pay bills, they help develop critical “soft” skills such as time management, interpersonal communications, teamwork, and conflict management, as well as knowledge and task skills that may transfer to subsequent jobs. Work is also an opportunity to explore career options, function in an organizational culture very different from college, and have a break from the world of abstract ideas. Finally, individuals who work and simultaneously attend college are more likely to advance, over time, to managerial positions after college than those who enter the workforce after high school but do not concurrently attend college (Carnevale et al., 2015).
In past decades, the general rule was that students should not exceed working 15 to 20 hours per week to avoid a negative impact on their studies. However, as educational and living costs have increased, learning while working has become more challenging. About 40% of undergraduate and 76% of graduate students work at least 30 hours a week; 25% of all working learners simultaneously work full-time and attend college full-time. The effects of working and attending school depend on the nature of the job (whether career-related or not) as well as characteristics of the individual and their circumstances. For example, low-income students are more likely to experience negative effects on their academic achievement while working. “This appears to be the result of a lack of counseling, social capital, and other supports that are typically associated with a higher socioeconomic status or more selective colleges” (Carnevale et al., 2015, p. 16).
Who Are Working Learners?
Carnevale et al. (2015) compare Young Working Learners (16–29 years old) and Mature Working Learners (30–54 years old) across several dimensions. Although the distinction is somewhat arbitrary, 30 is the cutoff point because, by that age, most people are established in the labor market and are adults. Women account for almost 60% of all working learners. Sixty-seven percent of younger learners work primarily in sales and office support occupations or in personal service occupations; 40% work full time. Younger learners tend to be disproportionately White and single; they choose majors in business, social sciences, humanities, and applied fields, and are likely to attend selective institutions.
Of the mature working learners, 51% work in either managerial, educational, or office support and service occupations. In general, this group is disproportionally African American and married with family responsibilities. They choose majors primarily in health care, business or other applied fields, and attend community or for-profit colleges; 76% of this group works full time. Mature working learners tend to work longer hours and earn more than younger working learners, 45% of whom have earnings at or below the poverty level. Student loans are common to both groups (34% have $25,000 or more in loan debt), although at levels less than students who do not work. Tuition assistance is a benefit that many working learners depend on, and several companies are developing new education financing options for their employees (Carnevale et al., 2015).
The Disconnect Between Higher Education and Workforce Needs
National policies are needed to clarify and strengthen the complex connections among workforce needs, educational opportunities, and careers. To this end, Carnevale et al. (2015) offer four rules for understanding such connections in the current economic and labor environment (see Table 1).
Rule 1 is easy to understand because chances are your family has pummeled it into your head since elementary school. Rule 2 is also straightforward but you might be facing a dilemma. For example, you could work toward a relatively high-paying career in a business specialty, nursing, or technical field and achieve economic stability early in your career, but perhaps you don’t have a passion for these areas. You may, however, have a passion to work in a mental health or social service profession where pay is relatively low but “the good life” is delayed. Graduate or professional school in your preferred occupation would eventually raise your income but education costs increase your loan debt and likely delay decisions about family and home ownership. Rule 3 is like Rule 2: It may require a decision that pits your personal values against practical considerations. Rule 4 requires that you carefully research career programs that respond to economic and local needs.
The report criticizes counseling centers that do not initiate career planning when students enter college, and for not focusing on the economic value (projected income) of academic majors. Furthermore, the traditional four-year model of higher education that addresses careers through an academic major has become less popular, less affordable, and less practical for working learners who seek direct connections between coursework and career, and who do not have time and resources to explore career options through standard coursework. Internships, externships, and professional contacts are the new norm for students (Carnevale et al., 2015).
Educational outcomes should be expressed as competencies, the “new currency” in today’s workplace. “The relationship between postsecondary fields of study and careers are only a rough proxy for a deeper and more dynamic relationship between competencies taught in particular curricula and competencies required to advance in particular occupationally based careers,” (Carnevale et al., 2015, p. 57). Although some programs in some schools focus on competency development, many educators eschew the competency philosophy of education.
Heed the old folk warning to not miss the forest (your long-term goals) for the trees (your options, circumstances, and needs); it applies to working learners. Take time to ponder the wisdom uttered by interviewee Nora Watson in Studs Terkel’s classic book Working, “I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job. Most of us, like the assembly-line worker, have jobs that are too small for our spirit. Jobs are not big enough for people” (Terkel, 1974, p. xxiv).
Carnevale, A. P., Smith, N., Melton, M., & Price, E. W. (2015). Learning while earning: The new normal. Washington, DC: Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce. Retrieved from
National Association of Colleges and Employers. (2016). Job outlook 2017. Bethlehem, PA: National Association of Colleges and Employers.
Terkel, S. (1974). Working: People talk about what they do all day and how they feel about what they do. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

Paul Hettich, PhD, Professor Emeritus at DePaul University (IL), was an Army personnel psychologist, program evaluator in an education R&D lab, and a corporate applied scientist—positions that created a “real world” foundation for his career in college teaching and administration. He was inspired to write about college-to-workplace readiness issues by graduates and employers who revealed a major disconnect between university and workplace expectations, cultures, and practices. You can contact Paul at



Copyright 2017 (Vol. 21, Iss. 4) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology


Eye on Psi Chi is a magazine designed to keep members and alumni up-to-date with all the latest information about Psi Chi’s programs, awards, and chapter activities. It features informative articles about careers, graduate school admission, chapter ideas, personal development, the various fields of psychology, and important issues related to our discipline.

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