By Richard Vedder
In the good old days (that actually were less good than old-timers like to believe), it was common for students from middle class and especially low income backgrounds to pay for a good bit of their college education by working while in school. Even though our parents paid most of the bills, both my wife and I worked while in college, and that experience was commonplace four or five decades ago. The kids from less affluent backgrounds were more inclined to work than those from affluent ones, since they needed the money to cover college costs.
Do kids from relatively lower income families work in college today? I have always assumed the answer is "yes," and know many students (including my own beloved Whiz Kids) who follow that traditional pattern. Yet some Current Population Survey data that Tom Mortenson of postsecondary.org presented in his May newsletter is making me think, and even wanting to explore that data set more extensively. Let us look at the four major racial/ethnic groups identified by the CPS -- whites, blacks, Asians, and Hispanics. The group with the highest labor force participation in college is whites (42.5 percent work while in school), yet it is either the most affluent or second most affluent group, depending on the measure of financial success used. The group that is clearly the poorest --blacks -- has the lowest rate of college labor force participation, 28.7 percent. Not all blacks are poor, of course, but my suspicion is that blacks are overrepresented among the poor kids attending college. Why, then, do they work less, relative to, say, whites? The picture for Asians and Hispanics is less stark, but even Hispanics work less than whites (40 percent), despite as a group having substantially lower incomes. Asians as a group are relative affluent, and have relatively low levels of work participation, more in keeping with the thesis that college workers are concentrated among the less affluent students.
Caution is in order. Group statistics can be deceptive, and it may well be that blacks attending college are highly concentrated among the black middle class, much more so than, say, whites. But the data suggest at least the possibility that either: blacks are given such substantial preferential treatment in financial aid that they do not need to work as much relative to others of similar economic status, or that blacks are unusually enticed to borrow deeply to fund college. The area is ripe for further exploration, and I am heading down the hall to see my colleague who is the resident expert on using the CPS to see if she wants to collaborate on a project either for journal publication or as a CCAP special study. Stay tuned.
Independent of the racial/ethnic dimension, why is the proportion of working students so low? For the relatively more expensive four year colleges, it is 33.1 percent. Two-thirds of the kids in four year schools do not work, despite the fact that data from the National Survey of Student Engagement suggest that their total academic work absorbs no more than perhaps 35 hours a week on the average. Are we over-subsidizing a bunch of under worked kids? At Berea College, every student works -- period. Berea is a fine school with a growing national reputation. Maybe if we subsidized student loans less, we would get greater labor force participation from students who have excessive time on their hands. I know two cures for hedonistic student behavior. One, demand more of them in class and give more grades below "B". Two, get them a job. To be sure, excessive student employment can interfere with studies and academic success. But I suspect for most students taking a college job would crowd out more party time than study time.