Study Snapshot: Working During College: Stumbling Block or Stepping Stone
Study Snapshot: Working During College: Stumbling Block or Stepping Stone

For Immediate Release: May 22, 2019

Tony Pals,
(202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell)

Collin Boylin,
(202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell)

Study Snapshot: Working During College: Stumbling Block or Stepping Stone

Study: "Working During College: Stumbling Block or Stepping Stone"
Authors: Daniel Douglas (Rutgers University and Trinity College), Paul Attewell (The Graduate Center—City University of New York)

This study was presented at the AERA 2019 Annual Meeting, April 5-9, Toronto, Canada. (Session: Supporting Students' Workforce Readiness.) A copy of the working paper is available online at Rutgers University's Education and Employment Research Center. 

Main Finding:

  • Students who work during college—accounting for background characteristics, college completion status, major program of study, college grade point average, and work behavior prior to college—earn more after college than similar students who do not work in college. The more they work during college, the larger the returns on post-college earnings.


  • Examining transcript and post-college earnings data for more than 163,000 students who enrolled in two- and four-year colleges in a large urban university system in the Northeast between fall 1999 and fall 2008, the authors find that traditional-age students who worked for pay during college, on average, earned more after college than similar students who did not work.  
  • This post-college earnings premium—which is measured between 6 and 16 years after college exit—is on par with the benefit from completing a degree, even after controlling for demographic and academic achievement characteristics, and across various student sub-groups.
  • As was the case with prior research, the authors found that work during college is associated with lower odds of completing college. However, for their study, the authors also analyzed data that link college student records with post-college employment and wage-earnings records.    
  • Overall, the findings demonstrate that the near- and far-term economic benefits associated with paid employment while in college held for women and for men; for racial/ethnic minorities; for community college as well as four-year college entrants; for those who had no work experience before starting college; and for those who did not complete a degree. Undergraduates who both work during college and complete a degree gained the most in terms of a post-college earnings advantage.
  • The authors found that compared to those who did not work in their first year, the post-college earnings benefit for associate’s degree attempters was $631 per year for those who earned less than $5,000 during their first year of college; $4,252 per year for those who earned between $5,000 and $14,999 during their first year of college; and $18,461 per year for those who earned $25,000 or more during their first year of college.
  • By comparison, the earnings bump from completing the number of credits required for an associate’s degree was $2,342.
  • The post-college earnings benefit for bachelor’s degree attempters was $1,270 per year for those who earned less than $5,000 in their first year of college; $3,494 for those who earned between $5,000 and $14,999 during their first year of college; and $20,504 for those who earned $25,000 or more.
  • By comparison, the earnings benefit associated with earning enough credits required for a bachelor’s degree was $2,353.
  • The authors found a consistent pattern indicating that the longer the duration of employment during the first three years of college, the larger the associated post-college wage premium.
  • Bachelor’s degree attempters who worked up to one year in college earned $2,883 more post-college; those who worked one to two years in college earned $4,559 more; and those who worked for two to three years earned $6,751 more per year, on average, post-college. The equivalent associations for associate’s degree attempters were $1,258, $3,161, and $6,069.
  • For both associate’s degree and bachelor’s degree attempters, working during the first three years of college was associated with substantially higher wages not only immediately after college but up to 16 years later.
  • The authors caution that students should be as careful as possible to make work choices that do not inhibit their progress towards obtaining their degree, given that undergraduates who worked during their first year of college were found to have a lower chance of graduating.
  • “It is clear that working during college can negatively impact completion,” said study co-author Daniel Douglas, a senior researcher at Rutgers University and a visiting assistant professor at Trinity College. “But given that 62 percent of today’s undergraduates work for pay while enrolled in college, it is welcome news that many students benefit in terms of later outcomes.”
  • “The traditional perception that students need to ‘focus on their studies’ is out of step with the reality that today’s college students need to work for a number of persuasive reasons,” said Douglas. “For educators, policymakers, and the public, it may be better practice to avoid characterizing undergraduate employment as a hindrance to academic performance, or as a necessary evil, and instead appreciate that working undergraduates are not only earning much-needed income in the short-term but are also enhancing their future long-term prospects.”
  • The authors note that their findings also point to the necessity of expanding work-based learning opportunities, such as co-op or Federal Work-Study programs, to help improve students’ earnings prospects over the long term.
  • “Policies that perceive undergraduate employment as a positive force and an opportunity for important informal learning are consistent with our findings that working during college is a stepping stone for many undergraduates,” said Douglas.
  • The findings also led the authors to speculate that for students from non-“elite” colleges, such as the system they analyzed, the formal credential may have lost some of its importance to employers. In this context, a record of steady work experience may be valued as an additional indicator of dependability and self-discipline that carries weight in distinguishing one “mass-college-going” job applicant from another.  
  • “From the perspective of students, working during college not only fulfills an immediate need to earn money and to acquire relevant skills, but also has become a means for students to signal their merit to employers,” said Douglas.
  • Douglas and coauthor Paul Attewell report they have been begun replicating their research outside New York. They have worked with research teams in Virginia and Texas and have so far found results consistent with those reported here.

To talk to the study authors, please contact AERA Communications: Tony Pals, Director of Communications,, (202) 238-3235, (202) 288-9333 (cell); Collin Boylin, Communications Associate,, (202) 238-3233, (860) 490-8326 (cell).

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The American Educational Research Association (AERA) is the largest national interdisciplinary research association devoted to the scientific study of education and learning. Founded in 1916, AERA advances knowledge about education, encourages scholarly inquiry related to education, and promotes the use of research to improve education and serve the public good. Find AERA on FacebookTwitter, and Instagram.