High school jobs: Impact is different for whites and minorities

January 24, 2013
Teen working

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ANN ARBOR — African American and Hispanic students are less likely than whites to work part-time in high school, according to a University of Michigan study. But those who do hold jobs tend to work longer hours, and are less likely to suffer negative consequences.

Those are among the findings of a new analysis of data on nearly 600,000 10th- and 12th-grade students, collected between 1991 and 2010 as part of the Monitoring the Future Study conducted by the U-M Institute for Social Research (ISR). The analysis was published online in Developmental Psychology, a journal of the American Psychological Association. Monitoring the Future is funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, part of the National Institutes of Health.

“Working more than 15 hours a week is associated with problems for most students,” says ISR researcher Jerald Bachman, the study’s lead author. “These include lower grades and higher use of cigarettes, alcohol, and illicit drugs. But this pattern does not hold true among some minority students, especially those from less advantaged backgrounds.”

Overall, white students were more likely than minority students to report working during the school year, the study found. Among 10th graders, 43 percent of white students worked, compared with 29 percent of African Americans, 31 percent of Hispanics and 26 percent of Asian Americans. Among 12th graders, 72 percent of white students worked, compared with 57 percent of African Americans, 59 percent of Hispanics and 53 percent of Asian Americans.

But African-American and Hispanic students who held jobs were more likely than whites or Asian-Americans to report working more than 25 hours a week, the analysis showed. Among 12th graders who worked, for example, 18 percent of Asian Americans, 22 percent of whites, 31 percent of African Americans and 32 percent of Hispanics reported working more than 25 hours a week.

Average grade point averages among white and Asian-American students dropped dramatically as the number of hours they worked increased, but the GPAs of Hispanics and African Americans showed less connection with the hours they worked, according to the report.

“Arguably, affluent kids have the least need to work during their student days,” says Bachman. “When they do work, they seem to suffer more in terms of grades and substance use. At least this is true for white and Asian-American students, whereas spending long hours on the job appears to be less harmful for African American and Hispanic students.”

The reasons for this divergent impact remain unclear, but one reason may be that African-American and Hispanic teens, especially those who live in poor urban neighborhoods, have a harder time finding work, Bachman suggests. “When they are able to land jobs, those jobs may require them to work longer hours,” he says.

The study does not prove a direct causal link between working longer hours and poor grades or substance use problems, Bachman notes. “Many kids who wind up working long hours already show evidence of some problems before they start working. But this certainly doesn’t rule out the possibility that long hours of work can add to the problems.”

So what should parents and students do? “First,” says Bachman, “the large bulk of research in this area suggests that students should avoid long hours of work in part-time jobs during the school year. Ideally, they should work 15 hours a week or less.

“Secondly, those who do work should try to build credentials as bright, courteous and motivated workers. As soon as they start new jobs, students should tell employers and supervisors that they hope to earn a good letter of recommendation. Saying that right at the outset will help everyone see the job as an important opportunity for growth and ‘real world’ education.”

Bachman’s co-authors are Jeremy Staff of Pennsylvania State University and Patrick O’Malley and Peter Freedman-Doan of U-M.


Contact: isrcommunications@umich.edu

By Diane Swanbrow