May, 2002
Working Students Can't Catch Up

Students are working longer hours to cover the rising cost of tuition according to "At What Cost?: The Price That Working Students Pay for a College Education," a report released last month by The State Public Interest Research Groups (PIRG). The result of PIRG's Higher Education Project, the analysis also shows that not only is the student-working trend affecting quality of academic life, but it also threatens the ability of students to stay in school and graduate.

Harder to quantify-but just as important according to the report's authors-are how working students miss out on nonacademic benefits to college life such as personal development from extra-curricular activities such as team sports, artistic activities, or service organizations. Other research confirms that students who participated in community service and other forms of civic engagement are empowered to become active participants in their communities, and to develop leadership skills, and are more able to contextualize their studies.

The report also indicates that more students are graduating with large debt than ever before. The report recommends increasing federal aid and advocates need-based funding as a proven strategy to enable students to devote more time to their college learning.

  • Of all full-time students in 1999-2000, 74% worked while attending school, up from 71% from 1995-96.

  • Forty-six percent of all full-time working students work 25 or more per week. Students in this category are twice as likely to indicate that working has a negative impact on getting the full benefit of a college education. Forty-two percent of these students reported that working hurt their grades.

  • Sixty-three percent of all full-time working students who work 25-plus hours per week reported that they would not be able to afford college if they did not work.

  • Fifty-three percent of all full-time working students who work 25 or more hours per week reported that employment limited their class schedule, and 38% said that work limited their class choice.

  • The ratio of aid to tuition has changed dramatically in the last twenty years, and the average student aid no longer covers tuition costs. In 1981-82, the average grant aid for students at public, 4-year institutions was $163 more than tuition; in 2000-01, tuition exceeded the average aid amount by $822.

  • Full-time students who work 25-plus hours per week are more likely to have to borrow additional money to pay for school. In 1999-00, 64% of students who worked more than 25 hours per week graduated with debt, whereas 49% of students who did not work graduated with debt.


  • One in five full-time working students works 35 or more hours per week.

  • Even if students borrow the maximum amount of federal aid, it won't cover the cost of college.

  • Working students are not only less likely to graduate, but to finish their first year.

  • Working students graduate with more debt; the typical student now graduates with $16,928 in federal student aid debt.

  • Bachelor degree recipients earn 80% more than high school graduates or $1,000,000 over a lifetime.

The analysis was based on the National Postsecondary Student Aid Survey (NPSAS), a nation-wide survey conducted by the National Center for Education Statistics. The NPSAS surveys approximately 50,000 undergraduates and represents about 16.5 million undergraduates. The data is based on the working patterns of full-time students enrolled in 4-year institutions.

To view the entire report, visit