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A spotlight on working students

Posted 9:42 a.m. Friday, April 5, 2024

Sidney Paulson will be representing UWL at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research April 8-10. Her research is on working students and their struggles balancing classes and work responsibilities. A double major in archaeology and anthropology, Paulson plans to attend the University of Aberdeen in Scotland with the goal of earning a master’s degree and doctoral degree in archaeology. 

UWL senior's research reveals realities for students balancing jobs and academics 

Sidney Paulson, a senior at UW-La Crosse, stumbled upon the inspiration for an undergraduate research project during her ethnographic methods class. The inability of a group of students to coordinate a time to meet outside class due to their demanding work schedules sparked Paulson's curiosity about the challenges faced by working students in balancing their academic and work lives. 

“In that initial research for class, many more questions came up for me about what people find important in college careers and the support systems that are most beneficial,” says Paulson. “I wanted to explore that more and bring more awareness to it.” 

Now, Paulson is bringing awareness about working students to the national level. She’ll present the results of her research at the National Conference on Undergraduate Research (NCUR) April 8-10, in Long Beach, California. NCUR serves as a platform for student scholars from various academic backgrounds to showcase their research endeavors. UWL has hosted NCUR twice.  

Paulson's research involved conducting an online survey targeting full-time UWL students who work at least 15 hours per week during the academic term. Subsequently, she conducted follow-up interviews with select participants to gain deeper insights into their experiences with work-life balance and their strategies for managing competing demands. 

Her research comes as a growing number of students turn to working long hours during college to pay for an increasingly larger percentage of their college education. The cost of higher education has increased significantly as state support for higher education has steadily declined for decades. Add on a rising inflation rate and potentially little to no support from the FAFSA, depending on parents' level of assistance, and students are frequently left to fill the financial gaps themselves. 

Working college students make up a significant sector of the student population. About 40% of full-time students in the U.S. were employed in 2020, according to the most recent data from the federal National Center for Education Statistics. And the majority of students who work are working 15 to 35 hours per week, according to Inside Higher Ed

“A lot of them feel isolated from the broader college community. They are only on campus for classes, so they feel isolated from peers, and there is feeling of invisibility — both in nationwide discussions about college students and at the classroom level where a lot of their peers may not realize their realities or their teacher may not realize how much they have on their plate,” says Paulson. 

Elizabeth Peacock

Elizabeth Peacock, an associate professor of anthropology at UWL, underscores the importance of shedding light on the challenges faced by student workers. These issues warrant greater attention and consideration at the classroom and national level. 

“Some of academia talks about this issue, but it’s not part of mainstream discourse. We’ve pushed this burden onto the people we're supposed to be helping,” says Peacock. “It's been happening in many states, and we are hobbling the next generation.” 

When work becomes a burden 

While working in college has been shown to have its benefits, like the ability to earn more after graduation and even perform better academically, a tipping point exists where too much work becomes detrimental. Previous research has found that 15 hours per week or more is the threshold where grades start to be negatively impacted by work, notes Paulson. Also, not all work is created equal. Low-income students are more likely to have jobs simply to pay the bills, while higher income students are more likely to find college work aligned with their passions and interests. 

Paulson says while working students may feel invisible in their college community, they also struggle with speaking up to make their situation more visible because of cultural norms.  

“There is the thought that you need to put your nose to the grindstone… People don’t talk about it because they think it is seen as complaining or that they are not taking advantage of the opportunities they do have,” she says.  

Yet, these students are footing an increasingly larger college bill than previous generations as tuition has increased, meaning longer work hours and less time experiencing college life. 

“There needs to be more discussion around how not everyone has the same resources. Through this maybe we can find solutions for these students who are falling through the cracks,” says Paulson. 

Students surveyed suggested various strategies for meaningful change such as more competitive pay for on-campus jobs or more community partners offering paid internship opportunities, allowing students to work in areas more closely aligned with their degree path. 

Paulson is grateful for this research opportunity that aligns with her future goals to go to graduate school. Her undergraduate research experience has solidified her interest in research, helped her connect with others and gain confidence in her abilities. Moreover, it helped her find her place in the UWL community as a working student. 

“It opened my eyes to the fact that a lot of other students are in a similar boat as me,” she says noting her working student status. “I feel like in a lot of the national discussion around college students, they are depicted as lazy and asking for handouts. My research has shown me quite the opposite. These students are working hard and working a lot ... They want to contribute something to society and are willing to put in astronomical effort to try and do so.”   


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