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Posted on Sat, Feb 23, 2013 : 2:30 p.m.

University of Michigan study explores risks and advantages of high school students holding jobs

By Kody Klein

Jen English has been working in Ann Arbor since she was 16.

"I really wanted to have more independence," she said. "I wanted to make my own money and do things with my friends on my own."

Now a senior at Hartland High School and working almost 20 hours per week, English strongly encourages other high school students to seek employment.


A new U-M study shows many students benefit from holding a steady job through their high school years. file photo

"It’s a great way to expose yourself to new people, a new environment, and to become more independent," she said. "It’s a great way to transition from being a teenager to being a young adult."

But despite the positive influence employment can have on students, parents still might need to be careful about how many hours they allow their high school-aged kids work. According to University of Michigan researcher Jerry Bachman, their academic success might depend on it.

Bachman's research, which compiles two decades worth of statistical data from about 600,000 high school students, shows that students who work long hours tend to be less successful than those who work fewer hours.

"They are likely to have lower grades than those who aren’t working long hours," he said. "They‘re also more likely to smoke cigarettes, to use alcohol, to use marijuana, and to use other illicit drugs as well."

While the study did show high school students who work tend to be more successful than those who don't, the trend reverses as soon as the number of hours they work exceeds 15 per week.

"For every increase in the number of hours they work, things tend to get a little worse," Bachman said.

Though working long hours may contribute to poor academic performance, Bachman said a direct causal relationship cannot be claimed.

Researchers also observed what they call a "selection effect," where some students may seek extensive employment as a way to succeed if they're already performing poorly in school. For some students, this was a way of achieving self-fulfillment.

"Many kids who wind up working long hours already show evidence of some problems before they start working," he said. "But this certainly doesn't rule out the possibility that long hours of work can add to the problems."

Bachman found the most significant factor to a student's success to be socioeconomic status, which for purposes of the study was defined as the level of education completed by a student's parents.

"The kids with the (most) educated parents have the best grades," he said. "They’re less likely to be involved in substances, especially cigarettes. For that matter, they’re much more likely to go to college."

Socioeconomic status also affected which students were impacted by working long hours, but the relationship was the opposite. Among students of high socioeconomic status, the correlation of long hours to substance use and lower GPA was much stronger than among students of low socioeconomic status.

"Arguably, affluent kids have the least need to work during their student days," Bachman said. "When they do work, they seem to suffer more in terms of grades and substance use."

However, the data showed that this wasn't true for students of all ethnicities.

"This is true for white and Asian-American students," Bachman said. "Whereas spending long hours on the job appears to be less harmful for African-American and Hispanic students."

So far, researchers have only offered speculative explanations for the statistical discrepancies between the ethnicities surveyed in the study.

"Among the notions is that there are fewer jobs available in communities where many African American and Latino youth find themselves," Bachman said. "So the ones who are able to get jobs may be among the more attractive candidates or applicants."

Erin Williams, a 17-year-old from Ypsilanti, got his first job when he was 14.

"I needed to help around the house," Williams said. "They needed it. So I had to take my responsibility around the house. I started working more and had less enthusiasm for school."

By his junior year at Ypsilanti High School, Williams was working more than 30 hours per week.

"I would miss classes," he said. "I wouldn't go to school a day or two of the week. I'd fall behind."

Midway through that year, Williams' counselors told him he was too far behind to pass his classes. Rather than retake them, he decided to drop out of school.

"I said 'forget it' and I started working full time," he said.

Scott Weissman, a licensed social worker and LEO lecturer at U-M, stressed that the brain isn't fully developed until a person's mid-20s. He said it's risky to let students work long hours in environments where they may be exposed to behavior more appropriate for adults.

"Decision-making ability isn’t developed until we're older and we put those kids in settings that they’re not able to navigate on their own and there’s no parental oversight," Weissman said.

But Weissman said that most of the students he works with "do quite well in school and are able to maintain the job."

"I have worked with a number of young men and women who work while they’re in school and enjoy the benefits that come from that," he said.

A full copy of the article Bachman co-authored with several other researchers can be purchased from the American Psychological Association.

Kody Klein is an intern for Reach him at



Mon, Feb 25, 2013 : 3:18 p.m.

Developing a work ethic isn't something we should discourage. Whether it be to help the family, or just to earn a little spending money - it's a positive experience. As far as what they may be exposed to, that should be the least of any parents worry. If you raise children to be independent thinkers they'll take the right path. Will they make mistakes along the way? Sure. It's called growing up. Current research clearly shows that the logic region of the brain isn't fully developed until 25. With that being said, should they not work until then? Um, no. That'd be ludicrous.


Mon, Feb 25, 2013 : 2:58 a.m.

I think holding a part time job can be great. But the key is, as the study says, to limit the hours. I worked maybe 8-10 hours per week at a store in the mall on weekends. I rarely worked on a school night. The managers knew and respected that I was not going to work that many hours. I learned a lot and still had the time to be a top student at school and participate in sports. I feel for these kids who are working over 15 hours a week. That has to be hard.


Sat, Feb 23, 2013 : 11:32 p.m.

I agree with this article. I had my first job the summer after I turned 14 and I've been working ever since. When I was 16 I started working during the school year in addition to summers. I didn't work many hours hours when I was in school because, of course, my main focus was school. But I was fortunate to have a 4 day school week so that allowed for working on Fridays so I probably did work about 20 hours per week but I don't think I would have if I was going to school 5 days per week. As soon as I got my first paycheck my dad took me to open my own bank account and taught me about budgeting and saving. As I got older I had more freedom with my money I earned as I proved myself to be responsible. I think it is a great opportunity for students to learn money management and responsibility. Once I started earning my own money I no longer received money from my parents for recreational things that I did with my friends or on my own. As I got older I was slowly required to provide more and more for myself. My parents were not uncaring for me and I always had what I needed, but it was used as a teaching opportunity and I am so thankful for it. Now I see so many kids graduating from high school with no concept of the value of money or how much things cost and they do not know how to live within their means. I'm sure that there are plenty of successful people out there who did not work until they were out of school, but I think it is a valuable opportunity for parents to teach their children how to manage money before they are on their own. My children will definitely be taught this way.

Jay Thomas

Sat, Feb 23, 2013 : 9:29 p.m.

Taking the summer off is why we rank below all those European and Asian countries when it comes to student performance. We are not an agricultural based society any longer and can do without it.


Sat, Feb 23, 2013 : 9:05 p.m.

Sometimes I worry about the influences at work, with the teen drug use, the teen pregnancy, etc. Yet those things existed at my daughter's public middle school, too. I mean, she was getting beaten up in private kindergarten, so we always have to be vigilant, no matter where they are.


Sat, Feb 23, 2013 : 9:03 p.m.

Personally, I did best in school when I was working and playing a varsity sport at the same time. The time constraints focused me and ensured that I did everything I needed to, when I needed to do it. My grades always declined during the off-season, though I usually tried to work more. I also volunteered during the weekends. Ultimately, I graduated in the top 10% of my class and scored in the 99% percentile on the ACT. Anyways, my experience might not match what "kids" do today, though I graduated from high school during the mid-90's. Perhaps kids really do have more homework, but I don't think that anything is lost on a kid who learns responsibility in a real-world setting - that is, working a part-time job.


Sun, Feb 24, 2013 : 1:30 p.m.

Agree wholeheartedly -- I also worked part time and was on the honor roll consistently. I believe that it provides the students with some independent and it helps to learn to be even more responsible.


Sat, Feb 23, 2013 : 9:13 p.m.

I did NOT work, volunteered on weekends, and graduated in the top 1 % of my class in Birmingham and scored in the top 1 % on the PSAT. I really needed the time to get my homework done, spend time with family/friends... and sleep! I lived in the most "modest" part of town, but I just didn't buy much of anything. GoNavy, I applaud you that you could accomplish so much. It sounds like you had a very balanced, successful time as a student. It just took me forever to get my work done for some very demanding teachers.