Informal History of Student Employment

By Rick Kincaid, The College at Brockport

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Trivial Pursuit (the source of much of my knowledge on many subjects) credits Zechariah Brigden as the first student to work his way through college, doing so in 1657.  Since then many millions have followed his path.  Has the experience of working while a student changed that much?  I think not.  Although I will eventually get to some real history (I was a history major after all), the essentials of student employment have not changed since Zechariah. 

Below are excerpts from a book published in 1915 that describes one young man’s efforts to support his education through work.  It still rings true.

On Student Employment Administrators:

“Well, I was in debt and desperate for a job.  Soon after I came here I heard about the Student’s Self-Help Bureau and had registered with them.  That feeling of desperation about my financial situation drove me nearly frantic.  Now I want to say a word right here about the bureau.  There have been two secretaries in my time, both of them certainly the right men for the right place.  Most important of all, they were both cheerful, and I think that is about the first requirement for a secretary of the bureau.  A man who goes there is a man in trouble.  There are never enough jobs to go around.  I often went there at the beginning of my freshman year and was told that there was nothing doing.  But I never went there without getting a certain amount of cheering up, and I need that as much as I needed money.”

On learning (by delivering laundry):

“I was forced by necessity to become what you might call an undergraduate business man, and the first step necessary to success was to know the world I had to deal with.  I also learned there what qualities I had to possess.  In the first place, there is one thing the student is famous for—it is his unreliability.  I made up my mind that here I would have to be the exception, and I pride myself that I have tried to keep my engagements, as any man in business would do.

“The second point was of equal importance.  In my new work I came to know the student well, and, of course, you know his work is not the world outside, or the world that I was used to.  All men in college have certain points in common, but they differ among themselves as do men in the world, and I learned to know their differences.   My work carried me into the rooms of a very large number of students.  I saw them all and learned to know them as they are and not as they pretend to be.” 

On time management:

“How did I manage to crowd it all into one day?  There wasn’t any crowding; I was forced to reduce it to a system, and everything fitted in nicely.  Yes, I can give you specimen days from my diary.  Through the winter I got up about 5, studied, and went out to take care of the furnaces—at one place you will remember, I shined shoes and carried the coal, etc; returned home at 7 or 7:05, took a shower and changed clothes, and was at the commons for breakfast at 7:30, for I still worked at the commons; took charge of the stand for about an hour a day.  Went to three classes in the morning, had lunch; in the afternoon put in two hours at (my job in) the studio; would ride down on my wheel to the job at the farm and take charge of the books for an hour and a half or two hours; came back for dinner, fixed up the furnaces for the night, which took about an hour, went home and studied a bit; and when there was distributing (clean clothes for a laundry service) to do, did that, and when there was no distributing, went out canvassing for slickers (sold rain slickers).  I got home between 10 and 11, studied for a while, and was up again between 4 and 5:30, according to the number of classes I had to prepare for that day…. 

“It’s a curious fact, but it’s true, that the busier I was, and the more I had to do, the more time I seemed to get for things outside and the more I enjoyed them.  Some of the keenest moments of enjoyment that I ever remember having were the little intervals of rest between two jobs when I came back to my room.”

On academics:

“You can’t carry a schedule of that sort and waste time.  I didn’t fall off in my studies.  The best grades I ever received in college I received in these two (busiest) terms.  The great value of that year lay in the fact that it taught me how to use every moment of time.  I could study for ten minutes and get ten minutes’worth of study out of it.  I got into my books immediately, and learned to work rapidly when I had time to work.  This one lesson has been one of the greatest things that my college course was to give me.”

From Through College on Nothing A Year: Literally Recorded from a Student’s Story

By Christian Gauss, Charles Scribner’s Sons  1915

Originally published in installments in the Princeton Alumni WeeklySource materials courtesy of Bob Cunningham, Student Employment, Princeton University

The earliest references to student employment are concurrent with the founding of our oldest university, Harvard, in 1636.  With this pedigree, student employment taps some of our deepest national ideals:

  • deserving and talented young people should be given an opportunity, regardless of background,
  • hard work and ambition should allow one to overcome meager beginnings and make a success of oneself,
  • overcoming obstacles strengthen and temper an individual,
  • each generation has an obligation to assist and promote success in the next,
  • education is the key to success. 

These deeply American themes are present in all the eras of student employment.

The Colonial Period

Admission to the professions (law, medicine, ministry, teaching) had traditionally been via lengthy apprenticeships in which the training was employment, albeit at steadily increasing levels of responsibility.   Universities added a classroom component, but because of transportation difficulties and geographic isolation of the period, much training was still in the form of apprenticeships or on the job training . 

While apprentices were supported financially by their masters during the period of apprenticeship, universities had no such arrangement.  Universities even expected the student to pay them.  But the quality of education, the opportunity to be exposed to a wider community of scholars, the desire to emulate Europe, the increasing population and improving transportation all worked toward the rise of universities.  They attracted young men of ambition but not always of means.

In the earliest cases, these students often just hired themselves out.  Many well-to-do families sought private tutors, particularly for daughters.  Lawyers hired clerks.  The jobs provided welcome extra money, and less need to be dependent on family. 

But many students either arrived at the university without means, or illness or other factors interrupted the support of the family.  In these cases, faculty at the university often became involved.  Small jobs, such as maintenance or agriculture were provided, usually at the intercession of a concerned faculty member.

As the need and number of students grew, and the advantages to the institution became apparent, the programs became formalized.  All of our early private colleges, led by Harvard, Yale and Princeton, subscribed to the belief that lack of financial resources should not constitute an insurmountable barrier to an education.   Scholarship programs were established, and some jobs (most often in service areas) were reserved for needy students.  Financing came from higher tuition charged the wealthier students, and bequests and donations from supporters. 

But, throughout the period, these programs and the number of student participating were still small.  A university education remained largely the province of the wealthy. 

The Civil War though the Depression

The State University

The Land-Grant College Act of 1862, introduced by Justin Smith Morrill of Vermont, provided funding for institutions of higher learning in each state.  Each state received 30,000 acres of federal land for each congressional representative from that state to be sold to provide an endowment for  “…at least one college where the leading object shall be…to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts.”   The Second Morrill Act of 1890 went further, providing annual appropriations for these growing universities. 

The establishment of the land-grant universities (Michigan State, Cornell, University of Vermont to name a few) was very important in the next stage of student employment. 

First, a school teaching agricultural and the mechanical arts was a practical place.  Campus farms and laboratories were common.  They needed to be staffed, the students needed to learn, and what better employees than students. 

The land-grant universities, by virtue of serving an entire state, were large and generally in rural areas.  The older model of a small number of boarding houses at the edge of campus meeting the student body’s needs did not work.  The college community of residence halls, dining halls, sports facilities, and shops began to evolve.  And each function needed workers.

The student body and the curriculum were changing too.   Scientific agriculture and modern engineering were emerging.  Higher education was to never again be solely the province of the professions, or just for the children of the wealthy.  The majority of the students began to come from lower class and middle class backgrounds, many from farms.  Immigrants quickly embraced the idea that education and merit was the road by which their children might advance in the more open society of America.  These were young people who were used to doing, not depending on servants or slaves.  Labor was not the province of the lower classes- it was what they and their parents had been doing all of their lives.  Working at college was just an extension of their background.

However, education has risks as well.  Parents feared that education might turn a young person away from the old ways and their values.  Many parents of these first-generation college students embraced that the student would work.  Work showed the student the value of a dollar, and was perceived as keeping the student true to their roots. 

Although the student employment programs at the land-grant universities were not initially centrally organized, the numbers of students working finally forced this organization, usually as a branch of the financial aid area.  

Student Entrepreneurs

During this period, many of the private universities in the east developed differently.  Lacking some of the forces driving the land-grants, another form of student employment evolved- the student agency.  

Ambitious students often began small businesses selling goods or services to other students.  Our student in the introduction had a job delivering for a laundry and pressing service.  Although not quoted here, he started an agency selling programs at home athletic events, and another business to sell yellow rain slickers (then a traditional garb for sophomores at Princeton), hiring younger students to work for him. 

Obviously, many of these agencies came to provide something the campus needed, yet the founder of the profitable agency inevitably graduated and moved on.  The Ivy League universities responded by formalizing their support, providing a mechanism to pass a business on to a promising underclassman, and assisting with support services such as accounting, post boxes, warehouse space or whatever else was needed.  Student entrepreneurs earned money both for themselves, and the fellow students they employed.   (The student agencies survive today although they have not had the same success outside of the Ivy League). 

Cooperative Education

In 1906, at the University of Cincinnati, Professor of Engineering Herman Schneider made two observations.  First, there were certain elements of his curriculum that were not readily taught, or absorbed by students in a classroom setting.  And he noticed the large number of his students that were working in their spare time, most often in jobs unrelated to their studies and career goals.  His solution was cooperative education, alternating periods of career-related work and classroom study- the goal being to blend practical experience with academic theory.  Area employers hired the budding engineers, and soon found them valuable for special projects and as future recruits.   The concept spread to other technical programs, and became the form of student employment most closely integrated with the academic programs. 

The Depression

With unemployment approaching 25% and the New Deal trying to “put America back to work,” federal programs were established to provide work.  One such program, the National Youth Administration Student Work Program, focused on providing jobs to high school and college students.  Established in 1935, it was the first federal program to directly aid students.  Much like the present Federal Work-Study Program, the N.Y.A. was administered by individual institutions, operating with fiscal guidelines issued by the federal government.  Although much latitude was given for the local operators, schools were encouraged to consider the student’s interests and aptitudes, and relate the work to the academic program.  However, a criticism in the program’s final report stated:

“Since traditionally, the American school and college plan was designed primarily to meet academic needs, it was natural that school officials in devising work assignments under the first N.Y.A. allocations met with difficulty.  Job assignments went to two extremes, from the highly academic on one hand, to the more menial or “leaf-raking” type on the other.”

The program operated through 1943 when the war effort, the consequent enrollment declines at colleges, and manpower shortages in industry caused its demise.  At this time, it was estimated that between one-third and one-half of all college students were working to earn at least some expenses.

One interesting note about the program is Lyndon Johnson’s early and influential involvement in student employment.   Johnson had come from very humble beginnings, and, by necessity, worked steadily during his college years.   In fact, the president of Southwest Texas State, impressed by LBJ’s ambition, put him in charge of doling out jobs to other needy students.  Johnson parlayed this power into political influence in student government. Those experiences led to his first federal position as statewide administrator for the Student Work Program in Texas.  He had a sympathy and passion for the NYA and students working that made him effective, and the opportunity to travel and visit all the schools in Texas and help bright young students was the genesis of his political network.

After World War II

The GI Bill greatly expanded the idea that the federal government had a role in providing financial assistance to college students.  Although its purposes were multiple (diverting a percentage of discharged GI’s out of the labor market to prevent massive unemployment, a reward for a job well-done, a recognition that a better-educated labor force was necessary), the GI Bill greatly changed the student employment landscape, even though it did not include an employment component. 

College enrollment spiraled with the direct aid provided to the GI’s and the services necessary to support this influx followed.  By 1947 one half of all students were on the GI Bill and by 1950 enrollment at public colleges exceeded that at the privates.  College housing, student services, and local retailing all boomed.  In addition, these students were different- older, more worldly and with considerable skills.  The local economies, including the colleges, hired these very capable student employees and broadened the perception of the kinds of jobs students could do. 

A concurrent trend was the increasing recognition that our human resources were a national resource.  World War II was decided as much in the industrial plant as on the battlefield.  The productivity of the American economy, fueled in no small part by the education of the workforce, was what had beaten the Axis, and might be needed to beat the Communists.   President Truman appointed a commission that concluded that half of the capable high school graduates who could benefit from a college education could not afford one- that cost, not ability, was the obstacle.  Although the report was not acted upon by the federal government, these perceptions fueled more private and corporate support for college endowments.

Eisenhower appointed a similar commission, which found that half of all scholarships funds were concentrated in only the fifty wealthiest colleges.   Large numbers of deserving, capable students could not attend college.  The Soviet Union’s launching of Sputnik galvanized the necessary political support, and the National Defense Education Act was passed, providing grants to states for student aid, and the first student loan program.  Although not included in the final bill, the Eisenhower commission recommended  “greatly expanded on-campus work opportunities at fair wages financed by the Federal Government,” and cited four advantages to such a program:

  • student financial assistance
  • additional workers for the institutions
  • ability to help both public and private institutions without regard to issues of separation of church and state
  • keeping students from competing with local workers in areas of labor surpluses.

The 60’s: The Great Society

Lyndon Johnson knew firsthand the value of student work, and, as part of the broader effort of the “War on Poverty,” the College Work-Study (CWS) Program was begun.  Coincident with the establishment of CWS, more low-income students, encouraged by civil rights advances, were likely to see higher education as an option.  The first wave of the Baby Boom was also reaching college age, and enrollments were swelling again, doubling from 4 to 8 million in the decade.  As with the land-grant universities and the GI’s, support services on and around campus boomed and needed employees.

Community college were founded and expanded, and increasing numbers of students were older and enrolled part-time.  The phrase “non-traditional” was coined to describe them.  Many of these students were employed persons who happened to take a class, not the more traditional student who happened to work. 

The 70’s: Professionalization

With the success of the Johnson’s programs, and the expanding need for them, the Federal Government began to identify broad goals for the financial aid programs.  The Higher Education Act of 1972 sought to promote equality of opportunity, promote the national interest (slightly broader than the national defense concept), encourage a diversified system of private and public education, and encourage state involvement.  Aid to students (instead of to institutions) encouraged student choice of schools in a “free market” approach, and was politically popular with both the parents and students.  Needs analysis became more formalized and ever more tightly under federal guidance, and the concept of aid as “entitlement” was introduced. 

In 1978, the Middle Income Assistance Act expanded aid eligibility beyond the neediest students, and suddenly the children of the much larger and more politically influential middle class began to be eligible.  Aid, including Work-Study, became part of the fabric of college life: an expectation of most families, and a necessity as college presidents projected budgets.

Job Location and Development

Recognizing the fiscal limits of the government, and the limits of campus communities to absorb WS students in useful work, the Middle Income Assistance Act established the Job Location and Development (JLD) Program to help students find off-campus jobs while still enrolled, “without regard to financial need.”  Colleges were allowed to divert a portion of WS funds, provide matching funds, and establish programs and hire staff for this purpose.  An unwritten purpose of JLD was to help colleges hire staff to deal with the increasingly unwieldy regulations. 

The 80’s:  Reaganomics

As part of a much larger effort to reduce the size and intrusiveness of the Federal Government, the Reagan Administration attempted to reduce eligibility for aid programs with a combination of funding cut recommendations, and tighter eligibility standards.   Elimination of funding for Work-Study was proposed annually, and defeated by bipartisan support in Congress although Congress never passed increases in funding. Adjusted for inflation, the net effect of stable funding was a reduction in aid available, a shifting of costs to families, and a need by more students to work more. 

Work they did.  By the end of the decade, 56% of 20-24 year old students were working at a “snapshot” point in fall semester.  This was a steady increase from 25% of this group working in the late 40’s, to 44% in the late 50’s, to 51% in the late 60’s.

In keeping with Reagan’s belief that private efforts were superior to public ones, legislative authority was given to colleges to place WS students with private, for-profit employers with wages subsidized by WS (few colleges have participated in this). 

The 80’s also saw the politicization of reallocated WS funds.  Each year, some schools do not spend all of their WS, and return some to Washington.  With First Lady Barbara Bush’s interest in literacy, these funds were earmarked for reallocation to schools to use WS students as literacy tutors.  As in other aid programs, a worthy but unrelated issue was attached. 

The 90’s: Community Service

The 80’s had seen political scrutiny and regulatory reform of grant and loan programs, as a result of abuses in “fly-by-night” trade schools and high loan default rates.  However, WS had virtually no evidence of abuse and was popular with elected officials of both parties.  Congressional suggestions were minimal. 

However, the trend begun by politicization of reallocated WS funds was expanded in the 90’s.  The original WS legislation allowed employment with public or private, non-profit employers.  In the 60’s or 70’s many schools placed significant numbers of students with off-campus agencies, in positions related to the public good. 

However, as inflation eroded funding for WS, and as colleges came under their own fiscal pressures, more and more campuses had spent the last two decades using WS as an “in-house” labor force, existing primarily for the benefit of the college. 

Congress became sensitive to several issues.  Were students working in menial campus WS jobs, unrelated to career goals?  Were needy local public and non-profit agencies being shortchanged?  Could WS funds serve the additional goals of assisting the community, and agencies in addition to the colleges? 

The result was a requirement that colleges spend at least 5% of WS in jobs defined as community service (largely off-campus).   (This will increase to 7% in 2000-01, and there continues to be Congressional sentiment for at least more scrutiny of what students do.)

The Future:

As Winston Churchill wrote, “The farther backward you can look, the farther forward you are likely to see.” 

Last Updated 7/8/20

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