Published: September 10, 2019

As the cost of higher education rises, so does the prevalence of students working to manage the financial burdens of their schooling. In 2016, 73% of Utah college students worked in at least one quarter of the year—a 2% increase since 2012. Not only is the number of working students increasing, but so is the length of their employment during the year. In 2016, 45% of students worked in all four quarters—a 3% increase since 2012. Although working students make up nearly half of the student population in Utah, little has been known about the academic outcomes of this group.

The Utah Data Research Center’s “Outcomes for Utah’s Working Students” research report found a correlation that working students were more likely to experience lower average GPAs, lower rates of retention, a longer time to graduation, and a decrease in the number of credits taken per semester compared to those who do not work. To better understand the effects of working while in college, this data narrative compares the academic performance of working and non-working students by age, gender, Pell eligibility, institution, and race/ethnicity. This research can help policymakers and institutions recognize the challenges faced by working students to improve support and increase successful outcomes in college and in the workforce.

Definition of a Working Student

In this data narrative, a working student was defined as a student who worked in all four quarters in a year, while a non-working student was defined as a student who did not work in any quarter of a given year. Overall, the sample comprised of students ages 17-54 who were seeking a bachelor’s degree at a Utah System of Higher Education (USHE) institution between 2012 and 2016. In addition, the majority of outcomes for age was separated into two subgroups: ages 17-29 (younger) and ages 30-54 (older). This was to reflect the different decisions these groups make since younger students tend to attend college for the first time, while older students tend to be returning students and already established in the workforce. Pell status was also separated by those who were not eligible for Pell grants (non-Pell-eligible) and those who were eligible/received Pell grants (Pell-eligible).



This study used GPA averaged across populations for the entire year of attendance to capture the effect of working on academic performance. Working students had an average GPA of 2.92 compared to 3.03 for non-working students in 2016. Working decreased the average GPA by 0.121 points. Out of all the demographics, 75% of non-working female students had GPAs in the 3.00-4.00 range, higher than any other group.


Average GPA of working students
in 2016


Among both age groups, working students had lower average GPAs than non-working students. When considering age as a factor, older working students had an average GPA that was 0.10 grade points lower than non-working students of the same age group. The disparity was larger for younger working students who had an average GPA that was 0.11 grade points lower than non-working students.


The average grade point difference was larger for female students compared to males when observed by working status. Broken down further, non-working female students in the younger group had an average GPA of 3.14, which was 0.16 points higher than working female students. Among males, the difference in average GPA was lower with an average of 2.83 for young working males compared to 2.90 for non-working males.


Working students of either Pell status had a lower average GPA than non-working students. Younger non-Pell-eligible students who worked had a higher average GPA than their Pell-eligible counterparts. However, non-working Pell-eligible students of the same age group had a higher GPA than non-Pell-eligible students who did not work. The largest difference in GPA was for young Pell-eligible students with a 0.13 point difference by work status.


Working students at all institutions had lower average GPAs than non-working students. Students at Utah Valley University and Weber State University had the lowest average GPAs, likely because they also had the largest working student population. Utah Valley University also had the largest difference in GPA for working and non-working populations with an average of 2.79 for working students and 3.07 for non-working students.


Working students of any race/ethnicity had a lower average GPA than non-working students. White students had the largest difference in average GPA by working status at 0.17 points, and had the largest difference in the percentage of working and non-working populations. Asian students had the second largest difference in average GPA by work status at 0.16 points while Black/African American students had the smallest average point difference at 0.02.



Retention was defined as students who enrolled in one of Utah’s public institutions for the first time, and returned for a second semester. A student may complete a fall semester, skip the summer term, return for spring, and still be captured in this metric. This metric did not capture students who leave college for an ecclesiastical mission or who are otherwise returning students. Overall, working students had a retention rate of 75% compared to 85% of non-working students. Working decreased a student’s odds of returning for a second semester by 30.4% compared to non-working students.


Graduation measures students who graduate within four years of enrolling as a first-time student. Four years is below the national average for degree completion of 5.1 years, but data availability limits this graduation rate to four years. Employment for this metric is defined as a student who worked at least the calendar year prior to graduation. This does not include students who leave college for an ecclesiastical mission or who are otherwise returning students.


Learn more about Utah's working college students

Learn more about the effects of working on Utah’s college students by reading the full report, which includes statistical regression analyses of GPA, retention, graduation, and attendance. This study also takes a deeper look into student populations, examines other research about working students, and explores the significance of outcomes on various demographic factors.


Allison Stapleton-Shrivastava

(Analysis/Report Author)

Britnee Johnston

UX Researcher
(Web Design/Coding)

Cory Stahle

UX Researcher
(Coding/Report Design)