An Examination of College-Bound High School Students' Labor Market Behavior: Why Some Students Work and Why Some Do Not

Article excerpt


Many more high school students engage in market-place work today than ever before. In 1940, the Bureau of the Census estimated that only 4 percent of 16-year old high school males and 1 percent of 16-year old high school females worked (Greenberger & Steinberg, 1980). By 1980, estimates indicate that as many as 75 percent of students work at some point during high school (D'Amico, 1984). Market-place work has been encouraged by many scholars (Fabian, Lent, & Willis, 1998; Olson, 1997; and Stern, McMillion, Hopkins, & Stone, 1990). Further, the government, through the School-to-Work Act of 1994, is now taking an active role in encouraging collaboration between schools and employers to develop programs that link school and work to enhance human resource development (Bailey, 1995; Bishop, 1996; Osterman, 1995; and Poczik, 1995).

However, many studies have found that market-place work during high school has a detrimental effect on educational attainment (Cart, Wright, & Brody, 1996; Greenberger & Steinberg, 1980; Greenberger & Steinberg 1986; Marsh, 1991; Mortimer & Finch, 1986; Ruhm, 1997; Steinberg & Dornbusch, 1991; Steinberg, Greenberger, Garduque, & McAuliffe, 1982; Steinberg, Greenberger, Garduque, Ruggiero, & Vaux, 1982; and Steinberg, Fegley, & Dornbusch, 1993). These studies generally find that working while in high school reduces the amount of time that students spend studying and participating in extracurricular activities. The result is that market-place work often interferes with the education process.

Conversely, other studies find that modest amounts of market-place work may have positive effects on measures of education such as grade point average, school attendance, and high school completion rates (Barone, 1993; D'Amico, 1984; Lillydahl, 1990; Mortimer, Finch, Ryu, Shanahan, & Call, 1996; Schill, McCartin, & Meyer, 1985; and Steel, 1991). These studies speculate that market-place work promotes educational attainment by helping high school students to develop industrious work habits and skills such as the ability to manage time.

Though previous research has examined the effect of high school work on multiple measures of educational attainment, virtually none of these studies examine the reasons why students engage in market-place work. Whether marketplace work has a detrimental effect on education may depend on a student's motivation for working. For example, if a student works to save money for college, then such work might keep the student focused on educational goals. However, if earnings from market-place work are used for consumption items, then the work may be more likely to be a distraction. We seek to address this gap by examining the reasons why some high school students work and why some students do not work. We seek to conduct our analysis with current data to determine the work patterns of students who were in high school in the late 1990s. This research will contribute to our understanding of high school work behavior. Investigating how this behavior is related to academic performance and social behaviors will strengthen our understanding of high school students. This will also enable educators to better prepare for the types of students with whom they will be dealing.


In the summers of 1999 and 2000, a one-page questionnaire was answered by 2,153 incoming freshmen at Middle Tennessee State University. There were 1,623 returns from the summer of 1.999 and 1,800 returns from the summer of 2000 for a gross response rate of about 75 percent. Unfortunately, not all questionnaires were answered completely and some questionnaires contain ambiguous responses. In this paper, non-responses and ambiguous responses are omitted. Thus, the data reported only include responses conforming to the survey instructions. Further, we restrict our analysis to students who were aged 17 through 19 to insure that our sample contains recent high school graduates. …


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