Does Working in High School Benefit or Hinder College Prospects?

Posted By Terri Williams on August 31, 2016 at 5:29 pm
Does Working in High School Benefit or Hinder College Prospects?

About one in four students report working in high school, whether out of necessity, to gain practical experience, or for some other reason, according to the most recent Census Bureau information. But until now, there was no definitive research on the effects of juggling work and high school. Does working hinder or increase academic ability? Does working in high school make students more or less likely to attend college?

“Getting Ahead, Getting Through, or Getting By?” a recent report by the ACT Foundation, analyzes the High School Longitudinal Study, which includes survey results regarding work history, academic performance, and future plans for education, work and family.

Below are selected excerpts from the report:

Have never worked Worked less than 15 hours week Worked more than 15 hours a week
Male 49.20% 48.60% 53.00%
Female 50.80% 51.40% 47.00%
White 44.60% 62.60% 59.80%
Black 16.40% 9.80% 10.60%
Hispanic 25.40% 16.10% 19.40%
Other 13.60% 11.50% 10.30%
Northeast 16.10% 20.00% 19.00%
Midwest 18.20% 25.30% 27.40%
South 39.4$ 31.90% 38.60%
West 26.30% 22.80% 15.00%
City 34.10% 28.00% 25.60%
Suburb 29.70% 28.10% 25.90%
Town 9.50% 14.30% 15.80%
Rural 26.70% 29.70% 32.60%
Above 130% of Federal Poverty Line 72.90% 77.50% 74.60%
Below 130% of Federal Poverty Line 27.10% 22.50% 25.40%
Did not earn an A or B in Algebra I by 9th grade 36.90% 30.80% 38.20%
Earned an A or B in Algebra I by 9th grade 63.10% 69.20% 61.80%



  • Gender: Females are 51% of nonworkers, 51% of those who work less than 15 hours a week, and 47% of those who work more than 15 hours a week.
  • Ethnicity: The majority of working students are white.
  • Region: more working students live in the Midwest and the South; however, there are also more students from the South who didn’t work.
  • Urbanicity: rural, city, and suburban students are equally as likely to work less than 15 hours/week, but rural students are more likely to work more than 15 hours weekly.
  • Low-income status: The vast majority of high school workers are above the federal poverty line.
  • Academic preparation for college: Students who worked less than 15 hours a week were more likely to have earned a grade of A or B in Algebra I by the time they reached 9th grade.

Working in high school is good, but …

The pros and cons of working in college were examined in a previous GoodCall article. But working in high school is a totally difference scenario.

GoodCall recently spoke with the study’s author, Sarah Blanchard Kyte, about the significance of her findings. Kyte says that her initial observations were that roughly half of high school students are working, and after graduation, most of them plan to start college immediately, while still working.

So what is the significance of earning an A or B in Algebra by the 9th grade? Research reveals that this is an academic milestone, since college readiness starts in middle school. Kyte says that students who earn one of these grades are on the right path to meeting college requirements – and they are actually thriving academically.  In fact, a report by Third Way reveals that 8th grade report cards can predict college completion rates.

And she also believes that working moderately while in high school is beneficial to students. “It can help them develop the skills needed to succeed in college – like self-discipline, teamwork, and confidence; and ideally, jobs can also pay off with a higher quality of life, more informed career interests, and potentially, a useful social network,” Kyte explains.

However, she also noticed something interesting. “When I took a closer look at how working learners from different social backgrounds are doing in terms of reaching their goals, I found that the relationship between work and preparation for college is distinct for low-income students.”

Among higher-income families, the most academically promising students are those who work a moderate amount of hours.  “However, among low-income students, those working the most during high school are the most likely to be academically prepared but the least sure of their chances of going to college.”

What accounts for these differences? Kyte speculates, “The most determined and disciplined low-income students may engage more intensely with both paid work and academics as a strategy out of poverty, whereas work during high school may pose diminishing returns for students not facing intense financial hardship.” The more well-off students may only work to obtain spending money or to add the experience to their resume.

However, there’s not an easy solution to getting low-income students that show academic promise to attend college. “Financial hardship shapes youth’s choices with respect to both education and paid work, so there are multiple parts to this problem,” Kyte explains.

She believes there is definitely a desire to continue their education, but since these students are working out of necessity, they may not know how to successfully juggle both activities.

Kyte concludes, “Making college more affordable to low-income families and more accessible to first generation college students is the most important piece of this equation, and the movement around predictable scheduling of low-wage workers and partnerships between employers and universities are promising directions for boosting college attendance among low-income working students in the future.”

Terri Williams
Terri Williams graduated with a B.A. in English from the University of Alabama at Birmingham. Her education, career, and business articles have been featured on Yahoo! Education, U.S. News & World Report, The Houston Chronicle, and in the print edition of USA Today Special Edition. Terri is also a contributing author to "A Practical Guide to Digital Journalism Ethics," a book published by the Center for Digital Ethics and Policy at Loyola University Chicago.

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