A study of 1,800 high school students in Kentucky raised some questions about conventional wisdom concerning the effects of part-time work on students. The popular impression that working students usually hold jobs in fast food establishments, spend most of their earnings on cars and clothes, and suffer academically, is not fully borne out by the results. Working students demonstrate a remarkable diversity of experiences and uses of earnings while not differing markedly from nonworking students in school experiences. The results thus offer a challenge to our conventional understanding of a subject that has received a good deal of press recently.
The percentage of high school students who work part-time is estimated to be somewhere between a very low 21% (Bittner, 1988, cited in High & Collins, 1992) and a high 75% (Saltzman, 1993). The most common estimates are between 40 and 60% (Bedenbaugh & Garvey, 1993; Green, 1990). It is also clear that work arrangements vary from occasional or seasonal to all year. Green (1990, p. 427), for example, takes these variations into account by classifying his subjects into four categories - "regular workers," "seasonal workers," "irregular workers," and "nonworkers." This classification also acknowledges the fact that students who do work are employed for a varying number of hours per week.
Indeed, the issue of number of hours employed - what Bachman and Schulenberg (1993) call "work intensity" - has been a major component of research on the effects of teen employment. Repeatedly, researchers turn to the almost magical "20-hour cutoff point" in their analyses. If working does in fact have a negative impact on students, especially their school lives, it seems to take effect once students work 20 or more hours per week; that is, working per se seems less important than how many hours are worked.
What is less clear is why teens work and, more important, what effect it has on their experiences both in school and outside. In part, this lack of clarity arises from researchers' particular interests and conceptual frameworks. Because detailed reviews of the literature in this area are provided elsewhere, most recently in the work of Steinberg, Fegley, and Dornbusch (1993), three issues which continue to plague researchers and which account for much of the ambiguity of the current research are emphasized here.
First, debate continues on how the potential advantages or disadvantages of students' working should be conceptualized. As Marsh (1991, p. 172) argues, most thoughts about working students fall into one of two models - "zero-sum" and "developmental." On the one hand, some contend that, because a student has a finite number of hours per week available, working necessarily diverts time from school and related activities. Much of the current research which reports the deleterious effects of work seem to fall within this model. On the other hand, some contend that working while in school may in fact contribute to students' development. This development, whether described as "character building" or introduction into the "world of work," is seen as a necessary correlate to learning to take one's place in modern economic society and echoes the more traditional arguments used to support the notion of "work-study" of the past.
Second, the issue of causation in the school-work relationship continues to haunt researchers. If, for example, working students do in fact do less well in school, is this a result of work leading to lower school achievement or of lower school achievement leading to students' decision to work? This chicken-egg argument has been explored in particular by Steinberg, Fegley, and Fornbusch (1993), who present longitudinal data which suggest that certain negative factors associated with students' working actually precede working rather than result from it. It should be borne in mind, however, that the critical 20-hour cutoff point seems to operate here as well. …