• August 30, 2015

Why Do Students Drop Out? Because They Must Work at Jobs Too

Many college students have bills that mom and dad don't pay. They have groceries to buy, kids to take care of, and cars to keep running. And they drop out because they have to work—more than any other reason, according to the results of a national survey of young adults that was released today.

Seventy-one percent of those surveyed who had quit college said that work was a factor in the decision, and more than half said it was a major factor. About 35 percent of those who dropped out said they had tried to balance work and study, and found it too stressful.

A report on the survey findings, "With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them," was produced by Public Agenda, a nonpartisan nonprofit research group, with support from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is based on a survey of a nationally representative sample of 614 adults, ages 22 to 30, with at least some postsecondary education.

The survey's findings build on a growing body of research showing that part-time students—who account for close to 40 percent of undergraduates in the country—and those who have to work generally fare worse than do their full-time counterparts.

The new report also examines the impact that financial resources, family backgrounds, and information about the college-going process have on students' ability to persist in their studies and to graduate.


1. texasmusic - December 09, 2009 at 03:34 pm

I wonder how many students who drop out do so permanently? And how many do so for only a year or two and then come back to finish once they figure out how to balance school, work, and stress? Or how many drop out several times but eventually earn their degree on the "ten-year plan?" Where is this research?

2. oldcommprof - December 09, 2009 at 04:26 pm

In my experience -- at a mid-size/mid-range university with the highest median family income in the state system -- students work not because they "have to" in order to pay tuition and rent, but because they want to go to the beach on weekends, buy skiis and Blackberrys, and fuel fancy vehicles. And their grades -- which I will deliver in nine days -- will reflect these priorities.

3. mmccllln - December 09, 2009 at 05:10 pm

I am 50 years old and earned my B.A. when I was 23. I just finished my M.A. this semester while working full-time, working a second part-time job and while married with two kids in college and one in high school. It can be done. I'm proof of that. It's a matter of cutting out just about everything else for the duration of the degree and having a really understanding spouse.

4. _perplexed_ - December 09, 2009 at 05:15 pm

At my R1, about 20% of the "full-time" students work more than 20 hours per week, mainly because they have do...Many of these are 1st generation college students. Their parents never expected to have to shoulder college costs...

5. cwinton - December 09, 2009 at 06:10 pm

And people wonder why completion rates have declined ... it is far more common today for students to be struggling with financial realities of family and job in the face of rapidly rising educational costs than was the case when the current decision makers were last in school.

6. geoffkoziol - December 09, 2009 at 08:02 pm

A number of years ago I began getting a glimmering of how many hours my undergraduates worked at outside jobs. So I took an informal poll in an upper division lecture course (some 70 students actually attending). It turned out that about half the students worked at least 20 hours a week; about 25% worked full time (40 hours). This was not to earn spending money. It was because their families couldn't afford everything required to attend university. The students' jobs covered some large part of tuition/fees, lodging, food, transportation, and spending money. Some of the work also went to building resumes for professional schools and careers. To understand this high proportion of students' working, one should recognize that many students have siblings in, just past, or about to go into university -- so their parents face educational expenses for those children as well. My university has never had sufficient housing for its undergraduates. As a result, students are given dorm rooms in their first year (not free, of course!), sometimes in their second year, but by their third year all undergraduates were expected to live off campus -- meaning not only that they were paying market rates for housing but also market rates for food. Most also needed cars (this is, after all, California). They might have been using the cars to go snowboarding on weekends. But they also needed them to get back and forth between jobs, classes, and home.

I have complaints about my students. But by and large they work very hard.

7. ctcboard - December 09, 2009 at 09:21 pm

It's a simple ratio of student wages to tuition. Here is a personal example of gross numbers for your consideration. (Taxes not included for the sake of illustration.)

In 1982-84, my community college full-time tuition was $200 per quarter. Working a minimum wage job at $3.35 per hour meant I could earn tuition in about 60 hours.

In 2009-10, our state's full-time community college tuition is $966 per quarter. Even with our state's high minimum wage of $8.55 per hour, that SAME 60 hours adds up to only $513. I would still need to work another 53 hours (that's nearly double the hours worked in 1982) to reach the $966 tuition.

Pretty gross, huh?

8. rbrunson56 - December 10, 2009 at 05:23 am

Earning a college degree results from some combination of determination and desire. My wife and I married half way thru college, and for another year plus, worked full time, and carried about 12 hours each, each semester. Before we graduated, we made the decision to take a sabbatical and do volunteer work.

My wife graduated from college in May 09, 35 years after she started. I'll graduate after I sell my business in a few years.

Neither access to free college, our parents' inability to pay our tuition, nor the challenge of paying for a private college education, were determinants in our choices. Our choices were our own.

The point is...neither the cost of Harvard or Emory, nor a parents inability to pay, will deter someone from a college degree who is determined to get one. Neither will free college, such as in California or wherever, will entice someone to finish who has decided they don't care to finish, or who prefer to make other choices.

Oooh. That personal responsibility thing again.

9. perkata - December 10, 2009 at 08:00 am

I am 66. I dropped out of college, while ostensibly a physics major, for lack of interest in my studies. I joined the Air Force, was sent to Syracuse University to study Russian. After leaving the Air Force, I graduated from a New York school with a degree in Russian literature. I dropped out of graduate school (Classical Chinese studies) due to illness just before writing my master's thesis. After having recovered, I saw no need to return. I could read the language and, given that, continued interest, and access to a decent library, little more was required.

I was for decades an editor at Random House, and I commissioned excellent books on the subjects of Russian history and of Chinese studies (and myriad other fields) without ever having an advanced degree in either subject and having barely escaped with a BA.

Perhaps too much is made of graduation, and too much thought is wasted on why students don't graduate. More thought and energy should be expended on polishing basic teaching techniques and infecting one's students with a desire to learn; once they've that they don't really need "you".

10. rchill - December 10, 2009 at 08:15 am

I agree with texasmusic. The real question is whether students permanently drop out due to financial problems. Most of the comments here are from people who did the drop out/back in route to a degree. I did that myself. Three colleges and 13 years for my BS/Biology. I had kids during that time;worked part and full time;was married and a single mom. After graduating I worked for about 12 years to finish raising my kids,taking graduate courses and plotting my "escape" back to graduate school. I received my doctoral degree in 2008 (age 51)and have been working at a small, rural, liberal arts college since then - and so loving it.
If you want something, or need something enough....you make it happen.

11. chguk - December 10, 2009 at 08:25 am

Please, would the "personal responsibility" posters remember that the plural of "anecdote" is not "data".

Of course it's _possible_ to hold down a job and study at the same time. The point that the article is making is that it's difficult, and that it leads to higher dropout rates, which is inefficient if you believe that an educated workforce leads to higher productivity overall.

It's also worth pointing out that in most of these "I did it, so can everyone else" stories, it's relatively easy to point to the details that made it possible to work and study: the understanding spouse (see comment #3), the stable family background, the supportive social network and so on.

12. 22228715 - December 10, 2009 at 08:47 am

I don't doubt that there are students who truly need to work, and eventually the work hours consume the study hours with the inevitable result of ending an academic career. But if I am remembering correctly, other studies have shown that part-time work is actually correlated with positive academic performance up to about 15 or 20 hours per week. So, it is not working, but overworking, that is the risky behavior. This is especially cruel math in retrospect because higher ed is one of those things that your payoff is really only substantial if you finish.

My non-scientific observations, backed only by interactions with thousands of students over the years, is that most modern students have a very, very naive sense of the difference between wants and needs. I am not waving the broad-brush accusation that today's generation is lazy and materialistic, but I would love to see a study of what those 30+ working hours students are supporting, especially for traditional age students. On the occasions I have worked with truly broke students, there is usually at very least a history of a period of buying-to-fit-in financed by credit cards that caught up with them (and now they truly are 3 months behind on rent and ignoring health concerns.)

I don't think this is isolated - and the only systemic solution is to begin to think of financial literacy as being as central to a pre-college education as math and reading. And we have to take some responsibility too - the financial aid and student affairs systems are set up so that a student should not need to spend much if anything for basics after paying the bursar. But what we set up in that package is pretty cushy, so that when the student moves off campus (or if she/he lives off campus from the beginning but socializes or studies with on-campus students) she or he has a pretty distorted idea of what is the minimum of the life of a college student.

13. amloera - December 10, 2009 at 10:13 am

Do these students think of themselves as "working adults" or "students"? How studens perceive themselves, and the influence of that perception on completion, should be explored in follow up research. Ultimately, the sample size of this study is too small to draw any meaningful conclusions.

14. dwilliamson8 - December 10, 2009 at 10:43 am

It's a matter of cost/benefit for us.

I worked full time as an undergraduate. I almost didn't graduate. At that time, I could make roughly $2 an hour while tuition, room, and board were about $3,500 a year. That means roughly 1,750 hours of work a year to cover school costs.

Our child now attends the same school. She could work for $8 an hour, but tuition, room, and board are now about $23,000. So she would have to work hours a year just for tuition. She would have to work 2,875 hours a year to cover school costs. Clearly not going to happen.

Her job right now is to go to school and graduate so she can get a job making more than $8 an hour.

Our job as her parents is to do whatever it takes to pay for it.

15. jhilke - December 10, 2009 at 11:00 am

MarylandOnline, a consortium of MD Community Colleges and some 4-year institutions, is just finishing a course-level retention study of some 3400 students from 44 Community Colleges in MD and CA who withdrew from an online course. The findings promise to be interesting around the impact of work and family factors on academic success. We found a significant overlap between the reasons why those students chose to take the course online and why they withdrew. Around 65% say they took the course online for work or family related reasons (single most important). Around 49% say they withdrew from the course for work or family related reasons. Having enough time for the course and time management stand out as dominant issues.

16. fosca - December 10, 2009 at 11:46 am

Many of my students simply don't know how much work a college class really is. Many have to work to afford to come here or to support their families (I'm at a community college), and often they believe that the only time they will need to take out of their schedule for a class is the lecture period. Or they take an online class without realizing that it is actually more difficult in many ways than a face-to-face class. So I have students who think they can work full-time and take classes full-time. Most of these vanish in the first semester. Hopefully they come back later, with a better idea of what college is actually like.

17. jesor - December 10, 2009 at 11:52 am

Hmmm, has it ever occurred to anyone that it is actually a good idea for a student to go relax every now and then. I understand financial needs, but if you expect a student to do nothing more that work and study for 4-6 years in pursuit of a Bachelor's degree, you're going to see a lot more in the way of campus disciplinary problems. These are students, not monks and while there are many, that take the social aspects of college too seriously, my experience at a small regional institution is that the vast majority of students know how to moderate their recreational spending.
As for the more traditional population, also consider the enormous pressure that they're under to find a spouse and their "friends for life". These aren't irresponsible decisions. These students know that this will be their best opportunity for these things, and society reinforces it through media and parents. Heck, my grandfather used to send me a check for $50 per month just so I could go out to a bar and try to meet someone to make grandchildren with.

18. johntoradze - December 10, 2009 at 12:10 pm

This is why I think that universities need to make major revisions in their 4 year graduation policies. For students that are supported and not working, yes, expecting them to work their butts off and graduate in 4 years with 15 units per quarter is right.

But for every 10 hours of work per week, students should be required to take 3 units per quarter less than 15 down to a minimum of 6-8 units, or get special permission from the dean. That permission should be granted dependent on achieving a minimum 2.75 GPA. Any lower, and it should be revoked.

Thus, students documenting 40 hours per week should be expected to take no more than 6-8 units of classes. Sure, they will graduate in 8-10 years, but they can graduate this way, and with good GPAs.

19. collegeaccessforall - December 10, 2009 at 01:48 pm

I teach at a large community college and have noticed something very interesting about the drop out rate of my students. At the main campus it is low and often the reason is problems with jobs or sometimes family olbigations. At the branch campus, which is geared to lower income, inner city students, the most "untraditional" of all non traditional students, the drop out rate is much higher (sometimes as high as 50% per class). Often it is due to the students being the backbone of their immediate and extended families who count on the student to handle all types of issues, from driving grandmother to the doctor, showing up at court for a sibling, wrangling with a landlord over rent issues, as well as taking care of sick children, because no one else can help. These people are shamed, guilted or simply expected to take care of people who don't have the abilities to handle everyday issues. It's sad; they can't say no, don't ask for support when they need it and end up overwhelmed and simply dropping out. Too bad; it not only stops their educational progress and perpetuates a cycle of poverty, it's a drain on taxpayers since most of them attend school on the taxpayers' dime.

20. jmoneill - December 10, 2009 at 02:18 pm

Good conversation here, but some people are making a lot of assumptions about things they may not have experience with.

My parents could have afforded to send me to college, but believed that their financial commitment to me ended when I was 18 so I had to put myself through college. I wasn't eligible for any need-based financial help because it didn't matter whether my parents were paying for me or not, their income was still used in calculating aid. I was fortunate enough to receive scholarships so I didn't have to work. The rest I took out in student loans (which I was then stigmatized for - I went to a fairly wealthy school and the idea that I would take out loans and voluntarily put myself into debt as an undergraduate was OUTRAGEOUS to many of my classmates).

So yes, personal responsibility is a great thing, but please don't overlook the structural factors that make it difficult for students to complete college and also those that diminsh the college experience. I might have had to work through college if I didn't receive scholarships, but I would have missed out on getting involved on-campus. I fully attribute my current skill and ability sets to the experiences I had as a leader on-campus, experiences that people who have to work full-time to get by don't get the opportunity to have. Without those extracurricular experiences, I could easily have seen myself getting frustrated with college, being unable to see the point of it, and making the decision to drop out.

So this is an issue we need to look at. Personal responsibility goes very far, but not always far enough.

21. phinellie - December 10, 2009 at 02:27 pm

I work at a university where more than 1/2 of the student population works full time. I am always torn when I see someone in my classes struggle when I know the struggle has to do with the non-school obligations. In response, I have learned to be very flexible in structuring my course and coursework. However, these students chose to take college courses to earn (in my case) a professional degree. There are certain benchmarks that must be met for sucess in my industry and, like it or not, many of them are objectively measurable. I can't in good faith pass those who have not shown that they can handle the work (regardless of the reason why).

22. rbrunson56 - December 11, 2009 at 07:27 am


Thank you for the grammar update. Understanding spouse, yes. The rest of your thoughts are assumptions which may or may not be true in a given situation, including mine. 2222 and perkata offer interesting thoughts.

These comments are too small a sampling to determine if the age of those making posts is a determining criteria in their view of the issue, though this would be interesting to know.

How, when, and if someone graduates from college is specific to their facts and circumstances. The solution is not "free" or reduced tuition college. "Free" is in quotes, as the perception of something as free is distorted thinking, and leads to poor decisions.

23. mbelvadi - December 11, 2009 at 08:10 am

There seem to be two entirely different perspectives in these comments - those who see stats about completion as measuring something that has to do with the overall productivity and welfare of the society, and those who see the issue as being about individual success and character traits. Those who write about finally finishing their degrees in their 50s+ have completely missed understanding the viewpoint of the first group - from a societal perspective, that's worthless - you're already past a big chunk of your most productive years as a member of society. As a taxpayer I could argue that I am only willing to subsidize the education of others in order to better the society I live in - I'm not interested in paying for your personal/spiritual/mental growth for its/your own sake.

24. witten426 - December 11, 2009 at 01:15 pm

plato got it right. it is a matter of the near and far. students go to college in order to earn more money
when they finish, but the don't finish because they are too busy earning money in the here and now.
I didn't own a car until graduate school. my students have cars, families and mortgages as
undergrads, of course this is exactly what our society tells them to do, and won't change until
there is some big change in the American dream

25. parkerbr - December 11, 2009 at 03:48 pm

One problem with such surveys, and the conclusions drawn from them, is that they often raise more questions than they answer. All too often, the answers provided by the reviewers of the data seem to miss alternative explanations. Students answer surveys from a distinct perspective; one which older generations may not understand. The same survey instrument could produce very different conclusions. My generation seemed to look at life with the perspective that college was the singular element in their life- resulting in students living out of their VW bugs and eating ramen noodles to be able to make it through college. My students today seem to insist on having everything their parents have, right now. So, it is possible that the financial strain felt by today's student is due to their own expectations, rather than directly connected to college itself. For instance, my university (28,000 students) provides financial aid to 80 percent of the students, yet we experience the same kind of drop-out rates. This would imply that it is NOT the cost of tuition, etc. that is creating the financial strain. In addition, far too many students today are attempting college without the essential skills in reading, writing and mathematics to allow them to succeed in four years. When facing even one extra year's worth of tuition due to the need for remediation, some students may very well drop-out and claim they do so for financial reasons. If they have to repeat courses due to lack of preparation, the impact would be the same. Yet, in my own interactions with students, they are almost universally unable to admit that lack of academic success is their own fault. Before we attempt to fix something, we need to make sure we know why it isn't working in the first place.

26. 11274135 - December 11, 2009 at 05:40 pm

I was wondering why this was news. We have known for decades that work and family responsibilities cause many college students to drop out. For decades! Suddenly a phone poll of 600 students makes this news? Conceptual breakthrough time! The problem is that we haven't figured out what to do to help such students be more successful. Although this is a difficult problem, we probably haven't tried very hard to solve it.

27. abelragen - December 11, 2009 at 06:17 pm

Why work on the assumption that dropping out is a bad thing? The world needs plumbers as well as lawyers, engineers, and professors, and people who realize that college is not for them and bail are better off than those who struggle on in programs that don't fit them. I suspect they are just as happy and productive.

Those for whom college is the best choice should be encouraged to put off childbearing so that they need to support only themselves. They might also save money by living in dorms that lack such amenities as air-conditioning. Colleges have been making higher education less affordable by indulging in a competition for students based on things that do nothing to further education.

28. rchill - December 13, 2009 at 09:03 am

chguk: I am aware my personal experience is not "data" - however, the data stated does not clarify how many of the dropouts are permanent dropouts or just people like myself (and the other posters, and a lot of people I know) who took non-traditional routes and did eventually graduate.
mbelvadi: You did not pay for any of my degrees,as I took out loans that I paid back with interest. And do you think those of us who earned degrees when we were older just sat on out hands prior to completion? We worked and contributed to society all along the way - and as I don't expect to retire until at least 70 - my 50+ degree will benefit society as well as myself.

29. superdude - December 16, 2009 at 01:07 pm

Dropout rates for college students shouldn't be interesting. There's no mandate that students attend college. They attend by choice, and frankly it should be up to them to make decisions about graduating.

Indeed, I'm of the opinion that high retention rates are a BAD thing. It indicates lack of rigor, grade inflation, and hand-holding. Fretting about retention only fuels the entitlement syndrome that is plaguing this country. Higher ed. needs to be more exclusive and more challenging if it is ever to regain its meaning.

30. saucebox11 - December 27, 2009 at 02:29 pm

As a college student who works 60 to 70 hours a week and has a full time job i can tell you just how hard it can be. You have to want to have this degree, and work for it. It can be stressful and I have no social life, but i will Graduate next year debt free with a piece of paper I may never use. However I can say that I did it, and I accomplished something great.

31. amnirov - December 28, 2009 at 12:35 pm

Who didn't work through college? Jeepers, I always worked full time. People really really really need to stop whining.

32. superdude - January 22, 2010 at 10:33 am

No, the vast majority students are not working because they have to. They're working to support rather extravagent lifestyles. As such, that's their choice to make, and I therefore have no qualms about running those poor-performing students out of the university.

When I see students with $200 pairs of boots, $100 cell phones (and $100/month plans), $200 ipods, and cars nicer than what most faculty drive, my sympathy for them vanishes. It's even worse when you see them in the bars, blowing $50 or more in one night.

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