Working While Learning in High School

New research from ACT on high school working learners examines students’ entry into the workforce and what it means for their futures. Below, Mary LeFebvre, the author, discusses the report.

Mary L HeadshotWe know from national data that more and more high school students in the U.S. are choosing to pursue some form of postsecondary education directly after high school and delaying entry into the workforce. Combined with the lasting effects of the 2008 economic recession which places adolescents in competition with older adults for entry level jobs, it is not surprising that fewer and fewer students are choosing to enter the workforce, albeit even on a part time basis, during high school. A consequence of the decrease in the adolescent labor market participation will be that the majority of current high school students will not be exposed to the workplace until after they have completed formal education. With this research, I wanted to better understand the tradeoffs involved in encouraging high school students to work while attending school versus intentionally delaying their entry into the workforce in order to better prepare them for postsecondary education.

The research came together using a large amount of ACT self-reported student data that can be used in research studies. One of the great things about working at ACT, Inc. is that I have access to vast amounts of data to inform my research. This study used data from 2014 fall national ACT test which included more than 360,000 students who provided us with information about their working hours during the school year. Previous researchers have found that working while attending high school is negatively related to measures of academic achievement, much of which has been attributed to student demographics and socioeconomic status. This study investigated differences in the demographic and socioeconomic characteristics of “working learners” (defined as high school students working 15 hours or more a week) and non-working learners. Additionally, it investigated how “working learner status” is related to postsecondary readiness as well as career plans.

The study found that high school working learners were more likely to be of lower socioeconomic status and to have lower postsecondary readiness scores compared to non-working learners. The results also indicate that working learners in high school were also more likely to expect to work intensely while in college. One of the bright spots highlighted in the study was the finding that students who work in high school were surer of their long term career plans compared to non-working learners.

Due to the fact that the data used in this study were not longitudinal (i.e. collected for the same students over time), we can’t make assumptions about causality. Student’s expectations toward work and school may have already formed at the time that they took the assessment and at an age, in all likelihood, when they had already determined what their path will be after high school graduation (median age of sample was 18 years). The current study found that working in high school was positively related to a student’s intent to work in college as well as to sureness about occupational plans after college. Students who are less school-oriented may, in fact, be more likely to work intensely during high school, and therefore more likely to work intensely during college. Future research could track student working patterns starting earlier, say at age 16, and also try to gauge orientation toward work and school.

You can learn more about working learners, who they are, and how they work and learn by checking out the full report, as well as a recent anthology on working and learning, The New Learning Economy and the Rise of the Working Learner.

Mary LeFebvre is a senior research scientist specializing in workforce research, policy evaluation, and competency supply/demand analysis.