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Report Reveals the Experiences of Working Community College Students

New research from the Center for Community College Student Engagement (CCCSE) found that the majority of students who attend community college also work simultaneously.

The report, “The Intersection of Work and Learning,” surveyed almost 25,000 students entering 74 colleges during the fall 2019 semester.

Dr. Tod Allen FarmerDr. Tod Allen Farmer

“[Working students] are our future and we need to invest in our future,” said Dr. Tod Allen Farmer, president of Weatherford College (WC). “The working students are going to be our leaders in the next generation and they will shape our society. It is imperative that we support them and help them become productive citizens.”

Among those students who work for pay, 85% have one job while 15% hold at least two jobs, according to the report.

Differences were seen among part-time and full-time working students.

Compared to their full-time peers, part-time entering students are more likely to work more than  40 hours per week. Additionally, work dictates school enrollment for 62% of part-time and 28% of full-time students, the study reported.

Age also plays a role in the type of job as well as the overall hours worked.

In terms of working over 40 hours per week, older entering students are more likely to do so. Additionally, one in five working students were employed in the same field as their discipline of study. The number increases to 40% for entering students aged 30-49, according to the report.

Half of all entering working students faced the challenge of scheduling their courses around their employment. More than half of working students between the ages of 22 and 49 experienced complications with taking required courses. Additionally, 17% of entering students are absent from class at least once during the first three weeks of the semester due to work obligations, the research found.

Along with scheduling issues, working students have to balance the expenses of tuition and other college fees alongside the cost of transportation, food and housing for themselves and oftentimes, families.

“All of these were exacerbated by COVID-19,” said Farmer. “It’s been a tremendous struggle even more than normal for all students but especially for working students. On top of all those challenges they have faced, many of those students, through no fault of their own, lost their source of income.”

However despite challenges, two-thirds of participants value work and education equally, according to the report.

Institutions such as Metropolitan Community College (MCC) and WC have looked at ways to combat barriers for working students.

For example, academic advisors at MCC provide a survey for students to detail their out-of-school obligations. From there, advisors suggest ways to balance their time in order to remain successful in the classroom.

MCC also offers eight-week session courses as well as opportunities to take classes in the evening and online to provide more flexibility for students.

“Based on the report, having those types of flexible scheduling options sounds like a strategy that can be supportive of our working students,” said Dr. Kathrine Swanson, vice chancellor for student success and engagement at MCC.

Dr. Robert JohnstoneDr. Robert Johnstone

On the other hand, WC is offering an institutional work study program.

“We are using that to help students who may not have qualified for federal assistance for whatever reason,” said Farmer. “We are providing them with work study opportunities here on campus. Of course the immediate benefit of that is financial. But the supplementary benefits associated with that are opportunities for these working students to be exposed to the professional workplace.”

The report also provided community colleges with a list of discussion questions to evaluate their own practices and policies in regards to  supporting working students.

“There is a lot that colleges can do,” said Dr. Robert Johnstone, founder and president of the National Center for Inquiry and Improvement.

Swanson recommends that schools have conversations with students to let them know they care about their success.

“I think if students know we have that interest and are having those conversations with them, when they run into challenges, they are not going to just drop their classes,” she said. “But they will come and talk to somebody before they do so.”

Additionally, Johnstone said empathy has increased at institutions across the country as “students deal with life situations” due to COVID-19. Going forward, he suggests that the practice of empathy should continue.

“Faculty, administrators and staff are also having to deal with these major life disruptions that are a part of so many of our students’ lives already,” he added. “I think an increased empathy is another thing that colleges can work on for the situations that their students are in, while at the same time trying to work on some of the structural things they can do to help those students,” he said.

Sarah Wood can be reached at [email protected].

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