A college degree can lead to increased income and job opportunities. According to Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, someone with a bachelor’s degree earns 31% more than an individual with an associate degree — and 84% more than someone with a high school diploma.

A lot of people start college but end up dropping out before earning a degree. What’s causing them to leave early?

A study by Strada Education Network and Lumina Foundation reveals that over the past two decades, a staggering 31 million people have dropped out of college. And according to the study, these are the top reasons for leaving before obtaining a degree:

  • Work-related issues (17%)
  • Financial pressures (12%)
  • Life events/personal problems (11%)

How working affects college students

A lot of things have changed in the 21st century, and this includes the defining characteristics of college students. According to Dave Clayton, Ph.D., senior vice president of consumer insights at Strada Education Network, these students no longer reflect the traditional idea of an 18-year-old leaving home for the first time to attend a residential college.

“Instead, many of today’s learners are juggling multiple family, work, and life responsibilities while attending college,” he says. “Across the individuals surveyed, we found consistently that the structures of many higher ed institutions today don’t fit with learners’ life realities.” For example, students can’t take the required courses because the class times conflict with their work schedules. Also, Clayton says there’s not a lot of flexibility when there are last-minute changes on the job.

Given the student loan debt crisis, you might think that everyone borrows money for college. But many students choose not to get a loan, and among those that do, the loans don’t cover their living expenses — especially if these students have dependent family members.

“With tuition costs steadily on the rise, many college students are struggling to juggle part-time, full-time, and even ‘side hustle’ jobs, along with their studies, to pay for college,” explains Terrell Strayhorn, professor of urban education at LeMoyne-Owen College, and president and CEO of Do Good Work Educational Consulting. He points to research by UCLA, which reveals that roughly two-thirds of full-time college students work — and almost a quarter of them work more than 20 hours a week.

“However, extensive research shows that 20 hours is the critical turning point where the benefits of working while studying toward a degree — time management, teamwork, problem-solving skills — are generally compromised by the stress of working long hours, cramming for tests, and losing sleep,” Strayhorn says.

Of course, not all college students are in the same category, and there are many factors that may determine how working affects them. “A 19-year-old full-time student living on campus who is working 10-20 hours/week in a low-stress job to contribute to living expenses will benefit from gaining work experience while learning time management strategies to fit study, work, and personal activities in his/her schedule,” says Professor Suzanne Rohan Jones, adjunct professor in the Psychology Department at Maryville University. In fact, she believes that these students will learn time management techniques that can help them in the classroom and in life.

However, she agrees that working more than 20 hours is problematic. “A 35-year-old single parent of school-aged children working 50 hours/week in a stressful, low-paid job while enrolling in 2-4 classes per term will struggle to have time, energy, and financial resources to successfully complete college coursework, whether it is on-ground or online,” Jones says. Adults who are returning to school to complete a degree so they can advance professionally are less likely to have sufficient time to devote to reading, assignments, discussions, and studying.

This constant balancing act will affect their well-being. “This can be the cause for a lot of stress, lack of sleep or not taking care of themselves properly, which in turn takes a significant toll on students' mental and physical health, as well as their quality of life," says Claudia Recchi, co-CEO and co-founder of EdSights, an SMS-based, machine learning-powered chatbot that gathers real-time insights into college students’ experiences to identify those that may be at-risk for dropping out.

Students who get a loan and don’t complete college have another burden to bear: Jones notes that even if they withdraw from school, they still have to pay back their student loans, except now they won’t benefit from having earned a degree.

And there are other issues as well. The college experience is about more than just classroom instruction. “Over 50% of students say working leaves little discretionary time for extracurriculars, once viewed as ‘campus fun,’ but nowadays used to extend the curriculum beyond the classroom and provide vital learning opportunities for students to develop financial literacy, cultural competence, global awareness, and even basic things like writing a resume, winning an internship, or applying to graduate school,” says Strayhorn.

Helping students stay in school

It’s almost impossible to sustain the balance of going to school and working without the right help. “Many schools offer resources to help students in this situation, but they’re usually not heavily advertised, so students feel as if they need to find a solution on their own,” says Carolina Recchi, co-CEO and co-founder of EdSights. “Often times, this results in school being the first thing these students de-prioritize in an attempt to find more time and save money, which can mean not showing up to class, letting their grades slip, or dropping out entirely.”

When students are in this situation, it helps to have understanding instructors. “I encourage all my students, whether enrolled in my on-ground classes on campus or online, to communicate with me whenever they are struggling to meet an assignment deadline, as I am willing to work with them as much as possible to ensure they meet the course requirements while understanding that sometimes work and ‘life’ take greater priority,” says Jones.

She encourages students to reach out to their instructors and advisors and explain what’s going on. “Having heard of students who fall behind in coursework, fail courses, and drop out of school, my first question is always, ‘Did the student communicate with his/her instructors? Did his/her academic adviser know what was happening? What else could have been done to support the student?’" Jones explains that colleges want their students to graduate and are usually willing to work with them to help juggle work, family, and school.

It’s a view shared by Casey McVay, assistant director of admissions at Clarion University of Pennsylvania. “It is critical to have honest conversations to identify how to properly manage coursework and study time and achieve academic goals, while still allowing for students to take care of other responsibilities outside the classroom,” she says. “Working directly with students to customize their college experience is important for student success.”

Recchi points out a mistake that working students often make. "When students are building out their schedule, it’s important that they’re choosing their desired major/school/classes first and finding a job that works around it.” However, when students reverse this order and make their class schedule around their job, she warns that they’re at a much higher risk of dropping out, since school is not a priority.

When students are realistic regarding their ability to balance work and school, it may take longer to complete the degree. But this is better than setting themselves up for failure. “Many universities offer online classes with on-demand content, so students can access reading material, video lectures, assignments, or quizzes at the time of day that works best for them,” Jones says.

By enrolling at community colleges, tech schools or state colleges, she says students need fewer financial resources to pay for their education. “However, private universities often have larger endowments to offer scholarships for students with greater financial need, so the student should research financial options to help them successfully complete a degree, in addition to looking for schools that offer programs that fit their career interests and needs.”

Employers can also play a role in helping students succeed in school. “Many employers offer employee benefits that include tuition remission for a certain number of credit hours enrolled in a career advancement program, or they offer some time at work to study, as this type of program is beneficial to both student and employer,” Jones says.

It’s going to take everyone working together to make this process work. Clayton says employers, colleges, and even policymakers have to be responsive to the needs of today’s learners. “The good news is, when we asked those who had dropped out what would prompt them to re-enroll, their answers were pretty clear: affordability, schedule flexibility, and a guaranteed employment outcome,” he says. “If individuals are going to make the investment of time and money in returning to college, they need a learning experience — which includes the re-enrollment process, coursework, credit transfer, advising — that is flexible and clearly linked to their success in the workplace.”