Negative effects of working during high school

Part-time employment during high school is widespread in western countries, particularly the United States. Seventy-five percent of U.S. high school seniors reported working at least part time during the school year, many more than in Europe or Asia. For example, 80 percent of Minnesota high school students have part-time jobs, only 27 percent of Japanese and 26 percent of Taiwanese students work during school.

In general, many American parents see work as a character building experience. Despite much previous research, Herbert W. Marsh and Sabina Kleitman, University of Western Sydney, report that fundamental issues remain unresolved. In this study, they sought to evaluate the effects of working during high school on a comprehensive set of academic and nonacademic outcomes. They used eight years of nationally representative data from the National Education Longitudinal Survey.

Data was collected from a very large sample of students when they were in 8th, 10th and 12th grades, and again two years after they graduated. The researchers compared groups by controlling for their economic background, ethnicity, gender, and prior educational experiences. They measured outcomes including standardized test scores, school grades, courses taken, attendance, staying out of trouble, educational and occupational aspirations, post-secondary employment and college enrollment.

In general, results showed a pattern of negative effects for students who worked during high school. In particular, working in the final year of high school had a significantly negative effect. These negative effects occurred even from working a small number of hours per week. The negative effects of working during Grade 12 were consistent across gender, ethnicity, ability, economic background and type of work.

Students saving for college were exception

There was one exception to the negative effects of working during school. Students who worked to save money for college had positive outcomes, even better than students who did not work at all. They spent more time on homework, came to school better prepared, had better attendance, received more rewards, took more courses, earned higher grades, were more involved in extracurricular activities, attained more leadership positions, had fewer “bad” habits (drinking, drugs) and had higher educational and occupational aspirations. All other students, however, experienced consistently negative outcomes from working — even those who worked to help their families pay rent. Most U.S. students work to gratify immediate needs or pay for things their parents won’t buy them: cars, clothes, alcohol and drugs.

These researchers conclude that working during high school undermines students’ commitment to and identification with school and subverts traditional academic goals. These results demonstrate that working even a small number of hours has negative consequences relative to not working at all, except for those students working to save money for college. In their case, work represents a strong commitment to school.

Contrary to working during the school year, these researchers found no negative effects associated with working during summer vacation when there was no conflict between school and work. Students, parents and educators need to be aware of the potentially negative consequences of employment during school. While most effects are small, they are consistently negative. The only “good” reason to work is to save money for future education.

“Consequences of Employment During High School: Character Building, Subversion of Academic Goals, or a Threshold?”, American Educational Research Journal, Volume 42, Number 2, summer 2005, pp. 331-369.

Published in ERN September 2005 Volume 18 Number 6

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