WORKING ONE'S WAY THROUGH college is the norm for community college students: 85 percent work part- or full-time. With an average tuition bill of $2,713 a year, only 13 percent turn to student loans. But long work hours have a high cost, concludes a 2011 report by the College Board's Advocacy & Policy Center. Only 21 percent of first-time, full-time community college students complete a degree or certificate in three years. The six-year completion or transfer rate is 31 percent. Part-timers, who make up 59 percent of enrollment, do even worse.
Some students "should borrow more and work less to increase their chance of completing a degree," says report co-author Sandy Baum. "People who work 10 to 15 hours do OK," but as work hours increase, grades slide.
"The worst thing students can do is go part-time or work full time. Both drastically reduce their chance of completion," says Debbie Cochrane, a program director for The Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS).
U.S. student debt has reached $1 trillion. New four-year graduates are struggling to find work and repay more than $24,000 on average in student loans. By contrast, only 5 percent of community college graduates owe more than $20,000 and most owe nothing. Is it really wise for people to quit their jobs and go into debt?
It depends, analysts say. Adults with skilled jobs shouldn't quit, says Judith Scott-Clayton, an assistant professor of economics and education and a researcher at the Community College Research Center at Teachers' College, Columbia University. But, "straight out of high school, when they're working entry-level jobs, it makes sense to work less, borrow more and complete a degree a year or two earlier," advises Scott-Clayton.
Most college drop-outs cite financial pressures--"I needed to go to work to make money" and "I just couldn't afford the tuition"--as their reason for leaving, concludes a 2009 Public Agenda study, "With Their Whole Lives Ahead of Them." Drop-outs were half as likely as graduates to report receiving financial aid or scholarships. Six in 10 community college students surveyed were working more than 20 hours a week; a quarter worked more than 35 hours a week.
Full-time community college students are more likely to complete a degree or certificate, according to a six-year federal study. Only 3.3 percent of part-time community college students complete a bachelor's degree, compared to 22.5 percent of full-timers who started at community college. Associate degree completion rates climb from 13.6 percent for part-timers to 21.9 percent for full-time students.
The effect of working is not clear, says Mark Kantrowitz, who runs FinAid.org. Cutting back on work hours boosts degree completion rates, but has no effect on certificate completion. In fact, full-time workers are more likely to complete a certificate than students who are unemployed or working part time.
Work Less, Borrow More?
"The idea that encouraging part-time students to borrow more might lead to a reduction in work intensity which in turn will lead to a shift in enrollment status from part-time to full-time and thus an improvement in completion rates is certainly an attractive idea," but the "data just isn't all that convincing," says Kantrowitz. "Advising students to increase debt (as opposed to directly advising them to work less and enroll full-time) might not be effective in improving completion rates."
In addition, there's a risk that students will borrow too much.
"It's probably true that if community college people borrowed more, they'd probably see a modest increase in graduation rates," says Richard Vedder, an Ohio State economist who runs the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. But some will borrow and still not graduate, ending up with more debt and no degree. "Community college students are in much more precarious financial positions" than four-year students, Vedder warns. …