Ontario students say jobs hurt academically

Policy paper challenges benefits of working while in school


It is well known that many students are required to work in-study (while in school) to pay for post-secondary education. As the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance’s recently released Student Employment paper points out, the in-study employment rate has gradually risen over time. Labour force participation rates for current university students have increased by more than 10 per cent since 1976.

Curiously, not everyone agrees that this is a problem. Some point out that the National Survey on Student Engagement has shown some in-study employment can be correlated to increased levels of active and collaborative learning. This should surprise no one. Real world employment opportunities have always been helpful to student learning, which is why nearly every university wants to offer more experiential learning.

However, it must also be recognized that not every in-study experience is particularly useful. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine the scientists of the future describing their tenure at Starbucks as particularly fundamental to their training. Unfortunately, this type of in-study employment is all too typical.

OUSA’s 2011 student survey indicates that only a minority of students would cite their in-study work experiences as beneficial from an academic perspective.

OUSA asked a few questions, the first of which is whether students worked in-study at all. More than 41 per cent of respondents indicated that they did so. This result is actually low in comparison to other estimates. For instance, a 2012 survey of graduating students released by the Canada University Survey Consortium reported that about 60 per cent of students worked while in school.

According to OUSA’s survey, working hours varied widely. About half of students who worked appeared to do so between one and 10 hours per week, 40 per cent appeared to work between 10 and 25 hours per week and the remaining 10 per cent worked 25 hours or more. In total, about half of all students worked more than 10 hours per week. The vast majority of these students were enrolled in full course-loads. Unsurprisingly, part-time students worked about 35 hours per week.

So we know that a significant proportion are working. We also know that about half of them are working more than 10 hours per week. Is all this work causing students trouble in the classroom?

Students believe that the answer is yes. Only 10 per cent of them agreed that working while in school had improved academic performance in any way. The majority—56 per cent—believed that in-study employment had somewhat or significantly hurt academic performance. Twenty-nine per cent of students indicated that in-study employment had no effect on academic performance. Essentially, nearly 60 per cent of students who worked reported a negative impact on grades.

The data show student employment may not be an academic hindrance for all, but it is for some.

What’s particularly interesting to note is that the 60/40 split in negative and neutral/positive impact on academic performance isn’t too far off from the 50/50 split in those working a limited amount of hours (10 or less) per week and those working a substantial amount of hours weekly (11 or more). This suggests a link between number of hours worked and the academic impact of employment.

Overall, the situation in Ontario should give policymakers cause for alarm. The fact that six in 10 students working in-study describe their experience as negatively impacting academic performance is bolstered by a follow-up question the survey asked. When asked whether they would still work in-study if they had enough money to pay for school, 57 per cent—almost as many—would not.

Not all in-study employment is negative. However, our survey indicates that the majority of working students would rather be in class than in the workplace.

Chris Martin is a graduate of McMaster University and Director of Research for the Ontario Undergraduate Student Alliance. Follow @chris_martin_n on Twitter.

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