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Less Work, More Study Is Better Path to a Degree, Survey Shows


College students who work long hours and study part time--a strategy used by many to manage the costs of their educations--are far more likely than their classmates to drop out of school, research shows.

The study, released today by the American Council on Education, found that 52.3% of the freshmen it tracked who worked 15 or more hours a week and studied part time quit school within three years.

By comparison, the dropout rate was 9.7% for students who studied full time and held jobs ranging from one to 14 hours a week.

"The way that a lot of students are choosing to finance their education--namely, by working and by attending part time--can have really negative implications for their likelihood of succeeding," said Jacqueline E. King, author of the study and director of the council's Center for Policy Analysis.

King said that some students, particularly those who are older or who are raising children, may have no option but to work long hours and study part time. But she said many other students could "make other choices" that would better their chances of staying in college and earning degrees.

"A lot of students are just assuming that it's better to work than to take out a student loan, and that's not necessarily the case," King said.

A key factor that many part-time students overlook, King said, is that, over time, they lose money by completing their studies more slowly. The main reason: People generally earn far more after they graduate, so anything that delays their degrees costs them earnings.

"The job market today isn't the super-hot job market it was, say, two years ago. But still, with the income you're going to command once you finish your bachelor's degree and you're out there working full time, it makes sense to get out into the job market," King said.

Although working long hours appears to hinder students, the research also showed that a part-time job might actually help students stay in school. The dropout rate among all students, full-timers and part-timers, who did not hold jobs was 26.7%. By comparison, the rate was 15.8% among all students working one to 14 hours; 30.6% among those working 15 to 34 hours and 52.8% among those working 35 or more hours.

King speculated that students who work part time may manage their time more efficiently than those who don't work at all.

The findings were drawn by using federal research to track, over a three-year period, 12,000 students who began college as freshmen in the 1995-96 school year. The study lists as dropouts those students who no longer were in college in the fall of 1998 and had not received degrees. Thus they may have missed some students who later returned to school and eventually earned degrees.

Lucie Lapovsky, president of Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y., and an economist specializing in higher education issues, said King's research has broken important new ground.

Lapovsky said that she previously recommended on her campus that students struggling to balance school and work responsibilities cut back their course loads. But after getting an early look at King's research, Lapovsky reversed her policy.

She now tells her admissions and financial aid staff to urge students to cut their working hours so that they can improve their odds of earning degrees.

People working full time face the stiffest obstacles in trying to complete their studies, according to King's research. That came as no surprise to Jennifer Pettibone, 31, a psychology student at Mercy College. She has worked full time most of the last decade while trying to earn a bachelor's degree.

Pettibone, who has worked as a waitress, bartender and restaurant manager, said schedule conflicts were one of the main obstacles hindering her progress in school. She often had to work when the courses she needed were offered.

Finding time to study and write papers was another problem. In addition, while working full time and living on her own, Pettibone said she earned too much money to be eligible for grants to help pay for school, but she still had to struggle to pay for the classes she took as a part-time student. "It's a Catch-22," she said.

Over the years, Pettibone said, she found that "the longer you wait, the more aggravating it gets."

Finally, a year ago, Pettibone became a full-time student, spurred by the concern that she would hurt her chances to establish a career in psychology if she took any longer to get her degree. She took out a loan and won grants from her college to pay for her final year of undergraduate school.

By the end of this summer, Pettibone expects to receive her bachelor's degree. "I still feel like, 'Oh my God, it's never going to happen.' "

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