Project Description

Many students attend college to make a better life for themselves, but their financial circumstances while they are in college can make earning a certificate, degree, or transferring a struggle. Sixty-two percent of full-time community college students are employed, and over 70% of part-time students are employed (American Association of Community Colleges, 2017). Many students who work do so out of necessity; in fact, 63% of students responding to a 2016 Community College Survey of Student Engagement (CCSSE) special item set on student financial health reported that they always find themselves living paycheck to paycheck, and almost 20% reported that they would be unable to come up with any money if an unexpected need arose. While many students struggle to make ends meet, they also struggle to work and attend college at the same time. Sixty percent of 2017 CCSSErespondents report that working full-time is a likely issue that could cause them to withdraw from college.

Data on students earning a certificate or degree highlight the struggle to succeed. Recent National Student Clearinghouse findings show that only 39% of students who enrolled in a community college in the fall of 2010 earned a credential from a two- or four-year institution within six years (Shapiro, Dundar, Wakhungu, Yuan, Nathan, & Hwang, 2016).

To improve these outcomes, thought leaders in the field and many colleges have been working on redesigning the student experience through guided pathways. A primary goal of the pathways work is to make clear connections for students between their programs of study and their end goals. As it is clear that the majority of community college students are also employed, this research project will explore connections between students’ work and its effect on their progress in meeting those end goals.

Through the addition of the special item sets to the Survey of Entering Student Engagement (SENSE) and to CCSSE, participating colleges will have access to new information from their students who are employed. Center reporting will allow colleges to disaggregate the results by student characteristics so that they can focus efforts on student groups most in need of support. Additionally, Center data analyses will investigate the relationship between working and student engagement, a key indicator of student success and retention.

Based on the quantitative data collected, Center staff will develop focus group protocols to be used in focus group discussions with students and with faculty and staff at three institutions. The focus groups will be conducted in fall 2020. In spring 2021, the Center will release a national report on the survey data collected, and the report will include quotes from the focus groups. The report’s supporting materials will include discussion questions for the college community to consider as well as video clips from the focus groups. These supporting materials can be used to spur internal conversations about how colleges can best serve working learners. The supporting materials will also include the focus group protocols, which can be used to capture different perspectives about the working learner experience.