Expert Commentary

College student engagement and early career earnings

2013 study in the Review of Higher Education on relationship between engagement during college can help explain future earnings patterns.

Surveys have reflected increasing levels of public dissatisfaction with the U.S. higher education system and the value of a college degree; rising student loan debt levels and the Great Recession, with all the challenges it has created for young people seeking employment, partly explain these skeptical sentiments. Research still shows the significant benefits of a post-secondary degree, versus just completing high school, in terms of increased labor market earnings. But there remain separate questions about how campus experiences and social/study habits — the real substance of college, not just the piece of paper given at graduation — translate into later rewards.

A 2013 study published in The Review of Higher Education, “College Student Engagement and Early Career Earnings: Differences by Gender, Race/Ethnicity, and Academic Preparation,” examines the interplay between academic and social engagements, students’ gender, race/ethnicity and academic preparation, and later earnings. The researchers, from Florida State University and the University of Chicago, analyze a longitudinal study of applicants to the Gates Millennium Scholars (GMS) program. They utilized the initial survey data collected when the students were freshmen and post-college follow-up survey data; the total sample consisted of 1,278 respondents.

To help define academic engagement, the surveys asked students whether they: “(a) Work with other students on school work outside of class; (b) Discuss ideas from your readings or classes with students outside of class; (c) Discuss ideas from your readings or classes with faculty outside of class; and (d) Work harder than you thought to meet an instructor’s expectations.” To define social engagement, the surveys asked students whether they: “(a) Participate in events sponsored by a fraternity or sorority; (b) Participate in residence hall activities; (c) Participate in events or activities sponsored by groups reflecting your own cultural heritage; and (d) Participate in community service activities.”

The study’s findings include:

  • No single pattern characterizes, in general, the relationship between engagement and earnings for all students; there are differences between academic and social engagement, and each of those variables then is influenced by gender, race/ethnicity and academic preparation: “The effects of student engagement on earnings in the early stages of students’ careers depend on the nature or type of engagement in which students participate. In other words, engagement in the form of academic activities influences earnings differently than engagement in social activities.”
  • Male respondents were more academically engaged than female respondents and had higher annual earnings in early years in the labor market ($31,101 vs. $25,822). Females, however, were more socially engaged than their male counterparts.
  • The effects of engagement on earnings are conditional on gender. Men experience greater economic benefit from being academically engaged, while women benefit more from social engagement.
  • Hispanics reported the highest average levels of academic engagement, while African Americans were the most socially engaged. American Indian respondents showed low levels of both academic and social engagement.
  • “Academic engagement has a positive and statistically significant impact on earnings among American Indian and Hispanic students, but no net effect among African Americans or Asian Americans. Social engagement had a positive and significant impact on earnings among African American and Asian American students. Alternatively, all other factors being equal, American Indian students who were more socially engaged during college experienced lower annual earnings once they were in the labor market, such that social engagement had a negative effect on earnings among American Indians.”
  • Social engagement did not have a disproportionate impact for students with differing levels of SAT/ACT performance. Academic engagement, however, had a distinct impact on different scoring groups. It had a negative influence on earnings among the low-SAT/ACT group, a positive influence on earnings among middle-SAT/ACT scorers and an insignificant influence on earnings among students who achieved the highest SAT/ACT scores.

The researchers conclude: “As researchers put forth more efforts toward understanding the economic implications of student engagement … it is increasingly important to consider the extent to which student engagement is conditional on specific student characteristics as a way to understand how distinct facets of the college experience may serve to compensate for, or possibly reinforce, precollege differences.”

Tags: higher educatios, Native American

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