Expert Commentary

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

2012 study in the Journal of College Student Development on some positive effects of off-campus work for undergraduate students.

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