The Stories We Tell Ourselves

Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Once upon a time, college students could pay their tuition with a mix of family support, financial aid, and perhaps a little work. Today, family support and aid are woefully inadequate for a broad swath of undergraduates, and full-time work is common.

Is working while in college truly necessary? Are the earnings used for academic expenses related to postsecondary education, or are they frittered away on life's pleasures? Since a handful of studies indicate a negative association between working long hours and rates of degree completion, these questions have taken on broader significance.

Unfortunately, few studies track students' income and expenditures in systematic ways. To better understand spending patterns, and attempt to tease out the reasons for those patterns, one would ideally have longitudinal data collected for a large sample of students, and complemented by in-depth interviews with a sub-sample of students to delve more deeply into the reasons underlying decisions, and validate the measures employed. Now true confession: Together with Doug Harris, I am conducting just such a study right now, the Wisconsin Scholars Longitudinal Study. But that's not why I'm writing this-- we don't yet have data to report on.

But apparently someone else does. A few weeks ago, a news outlet reported the headline "Will Work for Beer," covering the release of a new study from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, published in the Journal of Population Economics. In that study the authors used national cross-sectional data and determined that the earnings students make from work are not enough to replace contributions from their parents, or cover tuition costs. According to the report, "We test several hypotheses regarding the financial motives for and academic effects of college student employment and find empirical support for the hypothesis that a decrease in parental transfers increases the work hours of four-year college students. We also find that an increase in the net price of schooling increases the number of hours worked by both four-year and two-year college students."

Ok. So the decision to work may have something (but not everything) to do with how much support parents provides and how expensive college is. Unsurprising. Not particularly newsworthy.

But the lead author didn't stop there. Instead, she waded into popular stereotypes about college students, telling the reporter that the results mean that the drive to work isn't coming from a need to really make ends meet-- instead, " to have ‘beer money,' money for entertainment, money to pay other expenses, just not their tuition."


Her conclusion took a gigantic interpretive leap from her data. Notably, it's not a conclusion found anywhere in the actual research paper. All her evidence suggests is that students' work isn't generating income equivalent to parental contributions or in line with college costs. This could mean many things, including that students have a hard time finding enough work to generate sufficient earnings. Of course it suggests they likely need to find other ways to make ends meet-- including loans. But it says nothing about what they use their work earnings for, how they prioritize expenses, what they go without, etc. With her statement to the press, the author did little more than simply impute meaning to meaningless results.

Why mention "beer money"? It's not uncommon for an academic paper to simply say what it shows-- and conclude that while we need to know more about explanations for patterns in the data, we just don't have the information in the dataset to tell us what we need to know. Why step outside those bounds, and lend fodder to the fire? In what way is this helpful-- to policymakers, to students, or frankly, to anyone?

Working students are often struggling students. There's good qualitative evidence on this, even if the quantitative evidence isn't yet available. Professors dislike them because they tend to fall asleep in class, having been up serving on the graveyard shift instead of studying. Their classmates often don't know them well, since student-employees have little time left for socializing. Their grades are lower than average, their stress levels high, and their chances of degree completion relatively low. So why do we feel the need to minimize their need to work, to mock them for it, to enforce a stereotype that their earnings are spent at bars? It seems nothing less than classist-- in the absence of providing students with sufficient financial supports to make working during college truly optional, we try and make ourselves feel better by telling stories that students work not out of true financial need, but rather a desire to imbibe.

Maybe that helps some fraction of folks sleep at night, but I seriously doubt it's grounded in any kind of truth.