• By Dartington SRU
  • Posted on Tuesday 13th March, 2012

High school employment isn’t working

Working one’s way through college has long been mythologized as part of the “American dream.” But does getting a job before that, in high school, take a greater toll on young people’s later opportunities than has generally been assumed? Researchers at the University of Michigan believe so. Indeed, their findings suggest that high-school employment is a predictor of poorer adult outcomes.As they entered their 30s, more than half of the high school seniors being followed by the Michigan team who had worked for up to 15 hours a week had completed a bachelor’s degree. But every five additional hours worked was associated with an eight per cent drop in finishing college. So those who put in over 30 hours of work during high school only had a one in five chance of getting a college degree.The study is based on longitudinal data from the University of Michigan Institute for Social Research’s Monitoring the Future study. The team has been surveying representative samples of high school seniors beginning with those leaving school in 1976. More than 68,000 former students have so far been followed up into adulthood."The fact that there appear to be residual effects when respondents reach age 30 strikes us as really important," commented University of Michigan psychologist Jerald Bachman, lead author on the study. "It means that at least some students during high school are trading off long-term educational opportunities for short-term earnings. Most do not save much of their earnings for college. Instead, many simply treat their earnings as spending money rather than investments for their futures. In the past we have called this 'premature affluence’.”And the long-term effects of young people working while still studying at school goes beyond educational attainment. Thus while high school workers are more likely to get poorer grades and have lower aspirations for their future education, they are also more likely to smoke and take illicit drugs.The causal links are, however, not yet clear. Do the reasons for students having to work, such as economic disadvantage, lead to the unhealthy lifestyle and a need to work with negative consequences for college education? Or does the work bring with it an unhealthy lifestyle that damages later education chances for students who otherwise would have prospered? These questions go beyond the scope of the Michigan study.The research does, however, point to wider issues about inequality and social mobility in the USA. The children of many rich Americans do not need to work, while young people from poorer families frequently have no option but to do so. The Michigan study suggests a vicious circle which reinforces existing patterns of economic disadvantage and low attainment in future generations.And the findings will have resonance beyond the US, too, especially in those countries, like the UK, where the rising cost of higher education is increasingly being shouldered by the students themselves.Study leader Jerry Bachman has good advice for students who must work in an interview on the University of Michigan news service, available as a podcast.ReferencesJerald G. Bachman, Jeremy Staff, Patrick M. O'Malley, John E. Schulenberg, and Peter Freedman-Doan. (2011). Twelfth-Grade Student Work Intensity Linked to Later Educational Attainment and Substance Use: New Longitudinal Evidence’. Developmental Psychology (advance online publication, doi: 10.1037/a0021027).Linkshttp://www.monitoringthefuture.org/http://www.isr.umich.edu

Back to Archives