June 8, 2009 - 3:00am
ATLANTA -- The idea that college students who work on the side are at a disadvantage is almost quaint. Not because there's no evidence that spending many hours on things other than academics can impair students -- such evidence does exist -- but rather because the days are long past when many college students had a choice but to work. As tuitions have risen and more and more undergraduates are enrolling later in life, nearly half of all full-time students and 80 percent of part-time students work -- numbers that are likely only to grow in the future. Given that reality, the more college officials and higher education researchers know about how working affects students' academic performance the better. And among the many sessions at last week's meeting here of the Association for Institutional Research about what seemed to be an unofficial theme -- what works and doesn't in retaining students -- were two that sought to provide a more nuanced look at the impact of different amounts and kinds of work on first-year college students' grades and other educational experiences. The studies, whose authors include some of the most recognized names in research on students, offer somewhat conflicting findings, but combine to leave the overarching impression that it's a vast oversimplification to assume that work is necessarily bad for students' academic performance and engagement. "When you're talking about throwing a factor into the very complicated soup that is higher education, it's a little oversimplified to say that one thing should affect college students across the board," said Mark H. Salisbury, a research assistant and doctoral student at the University of Iowa who presented one of the two studies at the institutional researchers' meeting. "It makes more sense that work could have positive effects on one thing and negative on another, and that it would affect different kinds of students...