Connecting college students with enriching work experiences

The Brookings Institution

For many college students, working while enrolled is necessary to finance their education and cover their basic needs. Many students do it—about 40% of full-time and 74% of part-time college students. College work experiences can also offer non-financial benefits to students. Working while in school can help students identify career interests, build skills and knowledge, and establish networks of peers and supervisors who could help with their post-graduation career trajectories. Moreover, some jobs can build self-efficacy and the satisfaction of contributing positively to local communities.

However, finding a good job that offers multiple benefits is challenging, particularly for low-income or first-generation students who may struggle to navigate the complex college job search processes. When the financial benefits of a job are unclear, students may fall back on stereotypes like “interesting jobs pay badly” and not pursue potentially enriching opportunities. As students balance working while studying, explicitly connecting students with the highest-quality work opportunities that complement, not distract from, their education can meaningfully improve both their work experiences and the returns from earning their degree.

Tutoring can be a win-win job for college students

One high-quality job for college students is tutoring elementary and secondary school students. College students can benefit from these jobs because they can contribute to the community and they can build college students’ skills, not only for teaching but also for other jobs that require skills in motivating others or in the content area of the tutoring. Although many tutoring programs have traditionally relied on college students as volunteers, there has been a push in recent years encouraging universities to use Federal Work Study (FWS) funds and other resources to increase the number of college students supporting school-aged children and youth as tutors. Thus, tutoring can satisfy college students’ financial needs while allowing them to concurrently accumulate non-pecuniary benefits.

At the same time, tutoring benefits K-12 students. The COVID-19 pandemic had large and persistent negative effects on these students’ learning and attendance. In the wake of this educational crisis, tutoring has emerged as one of the most promising and frequently pursued strategies to help support students and schools. While schools have struggled to scale up best practices in high-impact tutoring, when implemented well, tutoring can address long-standing educational inequalities in our nation’s schools. Multiple studies of tutoring leverage college students, and find college students are equally effective at improving student outcomes.

Tutoring is a win-win job for college and K-12 students, but the question remains how best to connect college students who need these jobs with the paid tutoring positions available. In a recent working paper with colleagues, we report on a randomized controlled trial that tested whether highlighting the different benefits of a tutoring job can drive changes in tutor applications and employment. We partnered with Grand Valley State University (GVSU) to recruit paid tutors for a campus initiative started in 2020 to support Michigan K-12 students. Tutoring at GVSU was not only a paid position—it was a highly paid position on campus. Tutors could earn up to $17.70 per hour, the highest rate in the GVSU student hourly wage range and well above the state minimum wage at the time of the study ($10.10).

To test whether information about the benefits of tutoring can affect applications, we designed four emails that each highlighted a different benefit, as summarized in Table 1: the monetary benefit (tutoring is a paid position), the prosocial benefit (tutoring helps local children), the career benefit (tutoring builds career skills and looks good on a resume), and the social benefit (tutoring helps you meet other GVSU students). We tested each of the messages against a standard recruitment email that simply described the tutoring job and served as the control condition. We emailed every student enrolled at GVSU in the term of the study, inviting them to apply for a tutoring position.


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Mentioned Publication

Answering the call: How changes to the salience of job characteristics affects college students’ decisions

College students make job decisions without complete information. As a result, they may rely on misleading heuristics (“interesting jobs pay badly”) and pursue options misaligned with their goals. We test whether highlighting job characteristics changes decision making. We find increasing the salience of a job’s monetary benefits increases the likelihood college students apply by 196%. In contrast, emphasizing prosocial, career, or social benefits has no effect, despite students identifying these benefits as primary motivators for applying. The study highlights the detrimental incongruencies in students’ decision making alongside a simple strategy for recruiting college students to jobs that offer enriching experiences.

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