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Effects of work on leadership development among first-year college students

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Ohio State University (Wikimedia)
Ohio State University (Wikimedia)

Many college students work part-time or full-time while pursuing their education. Students are financing an increasing amount of their post-secondary education using their own savings and income as well as loans, according to a 2012 report by Sallie Mae. With costs rising in higher education, students and their families are increasingly challenged in finding the means to pay for school.

Researchers have studied the negative relationship between students’ employment and their level of engagement. However, student work may have some under-appreciated positive effects, as well. A 2012 study in the Journal of College Student Development, “The Effects of Work on Leadership Development Among First-Year College Students,” sought to examine less-understood dimensions of the lives of working students. The study, from researchers at Augustana College, the University of Iowa, Northern Kentucky University, and Wabash College, analyzes data from the Wabash National Study of Liberal Arts Education, focusing on 2,931 first-year students at 19 institutions in 11 states. The researchers’ definition of leadership centers on developing the ability to bring about positive social change by enabling individuals to work together.

The findings include:

  • Off-campus work in excess of 10 hours a week had a direct positive impact on first-year leadership development. This effect is independent of the influence of a student’s level of community engagement.
  • Working off campus more than 20 hours per week produced the most substantial impact on leadership development. These effects persisted even after accounting for a variety of student experiences, including on-campus leadership training or experience.
  • The relationship between work and college life is complex. Extensive work off campus limited peer interaction and co-curricular involvement, which are activities that also enhance leadership skills.
  • Not all forms of work were found to have an effect on leadership development. On-campus work had almost no impact on leadership development compared to nonworking students. Working fewer than 11 hours each week, whether on or off campus, had no impact on leadership capacities.
  • The “findings underscore the value of off-campus work in developing leadership capacities critical to professional success and participatory citizenship. In light of these findings, post-secondary institutions might re-examine the depth of their commitment to supporting student learning for those who work off campus.”

The authors conclude that, despite prior research demonstrating the detrimental effects of work on campus involvement, work can be beneficial to other aspects of student development. Thus, rather than limiting on-campus work, the authors instead argue that “institutions can ensure that all working students make the most of their educational experience by ensuring that those who work on campus are benefiting from their work experience just as much as those who work off campus.” They recommend additional research to learn about the attributes of off-campus work that facilitate learning.

Tags: higher education, youth

    Writer: | Last updated: February 1, 2013

    Citation: Salisbury, Mark; Pascarella Ernest; Padgett, Ryan; Blaich, Charles. “The Effects of Work on Leadership Development Among First-Year College Students,” Journal of College Student Development , March/April 2012,Volume 53, No. 2, 300-324. doi:10.1353/csd.2012.0021.

    Analysis assignments

    Read the issue-related New York Times article titled "For Poor, Leap to College Often Ends in a Hard Fall."

    1. What key insights from the news article and the study in this lesson should reporters be aware of as they cover these issues in higher education?

    Read the full study titled “The Effects of Work on Leadership Development Among First-Year College Students.”

    1. What are the study's key technical terms? Which ones need to be put into language a lay audience can understand?
    2. Do the study’s authors put the research into context and show how they are advancing the state of knowledge about the subject? If so, what did the previous research indicate?
    3. What is the study’s research method? If there are statistical results, how did the scholars arrive at them?
    4. Evaluate the study's limitations. (For example, are there weaknesses in the study's data or research design?)
    5. How could the findings be misreported or misinterpreted by a reporter? In other words, what are the difficulties in conveying the data accurately? Give an example of a faulty headline or story lead.

    Newswriting and digital reporting assignments

    1. Write a lead, headline or nut graph based on the study.
    2. Spend 60 minutes exploring the issue by accessing sources of information other than the study. Write a lead (or headline or nut graph) based on the study but informed by the new information. Does the new information significantly change what one would write based on the study alone?
    3. Compose two Twitter messages of 140 characters or fewer accurately conveying the study’s findings to a general audience. Make sure to use appropriate hashtags.
    4. Choose several key quotations from the study and show how they would be set up and used in a brief blog post.
    5. Map out the structure for a 60-second video segment about the study. What combination of study findings and visual aids could be used?
    6. Find pictures and graphics that might run with a story about the study. If appropriate, also find two related videos to embed in an online posting. Be sure to evaluate the credibility and appropriateness of any materials you would aggregate and repurpose.

    Class discussion questions

    1. What is the study’s most important finding?
    2. Would members of the public intuitively understand the study’s findings? If not, what would be the most effective way to relate them?
    3. What kinds of knowledgeable sources you would interview to report the study in context?
    4. How could the study be “localized” and shown to have community implications?
    5. How might the study be explained through the stories of representative individuals? What kinds of people might a reporter feature to make such a story about the study come alive?
    6. What sorts of stories might be generated out of secondary information or ideas discussed in the study?


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