Work is better than dependency. That's only one message that emerged from the passage of this summer's bipartisan welfare-reform bill. If holding a job is essential for instilling a work ethic and a sense of responsibility in those on welfare, could employment similarly help low-income high school students?
A study by Urban Institute researchers Duncan Chaplin and Jane Hannaway suggests that job experience in high school helps all young people, but especially those classified as "at risk"–those students who, in addition to scoring low on standardized tests, have parents with low incomes, low education levels, and little involvement with their children's educations. The study tracked the employment and educational histories of thousands of high school students enrolled in 1980 and followed them until age 28. As 28-year-olds, former at-risk students who had worked between 10 and 14 hours a week in high school earned nearly $2,000 more per year than their nonworking counterparts. Those at-risk students who had worked 15 hours or more while in school made over $4,000 more than those students who didn't work.
The authors suggest the earnings gap between working and nonworking students actually increases over time. The study also casts doubt on the conventional wisdom that working in high school diminishes educational attainment. Working high school students, particularly those who toiled more than 30 hours a week, were slightly more likely to drop out than nonworkers, but the differences in school years completed between workers and nonworkers nearly disappeared within a decade. While the authors do not encourage at-risk students to drop out and take full-time jobs, they do suggest work experience can instill elements of discipline and self-respect these students may not find at home or in school.