Working Learners are Majority of Today’s Students

Marcy Drummond

Vice President, Operations & Impact at ACT Foundation

(cross-posted from LinkedIn)

A new report “Learning While Earning: The New Normal” by Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce indicates a majority of today’s students, nearly 14 million and approximately 70%-80% of college students, are working learners — “students who balance learning in college with earning a paycheck.”

CBS Moneywatch quotes Tony Carnevale, Director of the Center and the report’s lead author, as saying “Work and learning for a whole host of reasons are becoming synonymous after age 18, and they are the gold standard for youth who are transitioning to adulthood, especially in economic terms.

Recently, much has been written about the nontraditional student being the new majority in post-secondary education. However, this is the first major study identifying the primary thing a majority of nontraditional students have in common is they are working and learning and, in the words of the working learners featured in the report, finding it difficult to navigate and juggle the structures and demands of employment and post-secondary institutions that have not adapted to these changing demographics and needs of today’s working learners.

The report also illuminates the benefits of being a working learner including gaining work experience, making career connections, forming good work habits, lessening student debt, and being more upwardly mobile and career agile after graduating, which is increasingly critical for success in a rapidly changing labor market adjusting to global conditions and technological advances. Working learners are also more likely to advance into managerial positions.

Several key findings are included in the report:

  • Most students are working learners regardless of age, income, gender and education level (high school or college); working and learning has become the “new normal” in our work-based society.
  • More working learners are working full-time. Nearly 40 percent of undergraduate students, and 76 percent of graduate students, work at least 30 hours a week. About 19 percent also have children.
  • Low-income working learners are most disadvantaged by working and learning because they are more likely to work full-time and experience less relevance between their work experiences and programs of study, which may be undermining degree completion. Just under half (45%) of working learners are low-income.
  • Working and learning is better than working full-time after high school. Working learners who earn a college degree are more likely to transition to other occupations and move into managerial positions with higher wages.

The report also provides policy recommendations including improving the connections between work and school, providing incentives for business to provide more paid internships that are aligned to the degree and career paths of students and tuition assistance programs, increasing competency-based education programs, and, more generally, altering policies to be of greater assistance to working learners.

The report illuminates the critical need for, and substantiates ACT Foundation’s efforts to catalyze, a national learning economy where next generation work-and-learn options are readily available to support working learners in pursuit of education and career success and greater quality of life.

ACT Foundation is proud to have contributed to the sponsorship of this research, including providing insight into the lives and experiences of today’s working learners through our Working Learner Advisory Council.

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