Diversity and Democracy

How Higher Education Can Support Working Students

According to the U.S. Department of Education, more than six in ten young people who begin higher education at two-year schools fail to graduate within six years (U.S. Department of Education 2008). The same is true for about four in ten students who set out in four-year institutions of higher education (U.S. Department of Education 2003). Why do so many American students leave college without a degree? Experts and policymakers cite many culprits, from rising tuition costs to poor academic preparation. And many offer promising suggestions for reform, from providing more students with financial support to revamping higher education policies and programs to encourage more young people to complete a degree or certificate. But what do students themselves have to say--particularly those who began college, but did not complete their degrees? What prompted them to leave, and what would they need to return?

Oregon State University
Oregon State University

To answer these questions, Public Agenda recently interviewed 614 young adults between the ages of twenty-two and thirty who had started some form of higher education--be it at a four-year undergraduate institution, a two-year community college, or in a vocational or technical program (Johnson and Rochkind 2009). We then compared the experiences of those who successfully completed their programs with those who didn't make it. Although some conceded that they were poorly prepared for college and some said tuition cost was the chief problem, most offered a somewhat different explanation: it was not college itself that represented the greatest hurdle. It was the students' responsibilities and activities outside of class.

Balancing the Demands of Work and School

The number one reason students said they left school is that they had to work while enrolled. Despite their best efforts, the stress of trying both to work and to study eventually took its toll. More than half of those who left higher education before completing a degree or a certificate said that the "need to work and make money" while attending classes was the primary reason they left. Balancing work and school was an even bigger barrier than finding money for tuition. Those who dropped out were almost twice as likely to cite difficulty juggling work and school, rather than paying their tuition bills, as their primary problem. And when asked to think back to their first year of school, more than six in ten said that they "had to work as well, and it was too stressful trying to do both." 

More than a third of those who left school said that even if they had a grant that fully covered tuition and books, it would be hard to return to college. A majority cited "working full time" and "family commitments" as the major reasons. In focus groups, young people often talked about the difficulties of balancing school and work. One woman who had recently returned to school said, "It's very hard because I go to school three nights a week. I work from 8 to 5....I don't get home until 9:30 to 10 at night....my dedication to my classes could also be better if I didn't work as much." Similarly, a young man who hoped to return to school described his fears that he might never get a credential: "The reason why I'm set back is because I got a wife, kids. My wife's doing her thing [in college]. Once she's done with that then she can stay at home and take the side job....Then I can do my thing at school, and then once I'm done we'll have the jobs."

Caught Between Reality and Ambition

For most students we interviewed, not working is not a realistic option. Young adults who did not finish college were more likely than those who finished to be paying for school out of their own pockets. Nearly six in ten said that they had to pay for college costs themselves, rather than receiving help from their families. In contrast, more than six in ten of those who graduated said their families had helped them cover the cost of school. In addition, about seven in ten of those who left said they did not have any scholarships or financial aid. And about three in ten reported that they have college loans--money that has to be repaid even though they have not completed college.

Nearly all young Americans understand that having a college degree is a financial asset in today's economy. In fact, nearly 90 percent of young people who left college without a degree said they have considered going back to school, with nearly two-thirds saying they have thought about it "a lot." However, as a group, young people who drop out are slightly more likely to show doubt about the value of higher education. They are less likely than those who complete school to strongly agree that their parents always instilled in them the importance of college, less likely to strongly agree that people with degrees make more money, and less likely to say they would still go to college even if they knew they could get a good job without a degree. Thus while economic factors clearly predominate as the reason most young people drop out, subtle differences in attitude may be a factor, especially for young people paying their own way and experiencing the stress of working and attending classes at the same time. For these young people, even a small amount of uncertainty about whether the struggle is worth it may be a tipping point.

What Can Be Done?

Policy makers and educators are debating and testing scores of reform proposals. Some focus on government policy, some on K-12 preparation, and some on higher education itself. When we asked young adults for their feedback on a list of twelve proposals that would help "someone like them" get a college degree, more than three out of four of those who did not complete a degree said that five of the proposals would help "a lot." Two of their favorite ideas involved reducing the cost of college: cutting costs by 25 percent and increasing the number of government loans. The other three proposals they favored could greatly improve students' chances of graduating if implemented by institutions:

  • Allow part-time students to qualify for financial aid. Many students say that even with tuition and books paid in full, they still would need a job and might only be able to attend school part time.
  • Offer more courses in the evenings, on weekends, or in the summer. Institutions should examine what they can provide beyond the traditional schedule for students who are juggling school, work, and family commitments.
  • Provide child care for students who need it. In one focus group, a young woman who left school said, "The one [school] I was at, they have a huge waiting list for the day care. It was just really difficult to get in...." In another group, when the moderator suggested the possibility of having child care on campus, one woman asked incredulously, "Would a college ever do that?"

The 40 percent of students who do not finish a four-year college program and the more than 60 percent who do not finish community college have the desire and the wherewithal to pursue higher education, but too many encounter significant obstacles that stand in their way. Is the higher education community concerned and resourceful enough to give them a better chance? And in the end, can we afford not to?

For more information, visit www.publicagenda.org/theirwholelivesaheadofthem.


Johnson, J., and J. Rochkind. 2009. With their whole lives ahead of them. With A. N. Ott and S. DuPont. New York: Public Agenda.

--­ U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. 2003. Beginning Postsecondary Students Longitudinal Study 1996/01. nces.ed.gov/surveys/bps.

--­. 2008. Table 329: Percentage distribution of enrollment and completion status of first-time postsecondary students starting during the 1995-96 academic year, by type of institution and other student characteristics: 2001. Digest of education statistics, 2008. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

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