​Work your way through college? Not these days

It was once a tradition for college students to spend their summers working, earning enough money to pay their tuition and living expenses for the next academic year.

Those days are long over, according to a new report from Georgetown University's Center on Education and the Workforce called "Learning While Earning." A student with a full-time job paying the federal minimum wage would earn only $15,080 annually, a far cry from the annual tuition expenses of $31,231 that private four-year colleges charge.

That doesn't mean students aren't working while in college. The study found about 70 percent of them are also working while attending school. While they can't hope to cover their costs through those hours, the students are gaining workplace experience that helps later in their careers. A higher share of working college students eventually move into professional and managerial jobs than their fellow students who don't work during school, with a few exceptions, such as students in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, the study found.

"Work and learning for a whole host of reasons are becoming synonymous after age 18, and they are the gold standard for youth who are transitioning to adulthood, especially in economic terms," said Tony Carnivale, director of the Georgetown Center and the report's lead author.

The college experience has been transformed over the several decades in a number of ways, ranging from how students handle employment while enrolled in college to the age and life goals of the college population. Because skills have become more important than a general liberal arts education, students are shifting away from degrees in the humanities, education and social sciences, the study found.

About 80 percent of bachelor's degree majors are now tied to occupations. In 1970, about 61 percent of college degrees were in the humanities, education or social sciences fields, but that's now dropped to 38 percent. And since 1949, the student population has surged tenfold from only 2.4 million college students to 20 million.

That means the student body is more diverse than it was back in the post-World War II years. One-third of students who work are older than 30 and are pursuing education as a way to receive a promotion, find a new career or upgrade their qualifications.

Those older, working students are more likely to be black and female, and they're generally pursuing a certificate or associate's degree. Younger students who hold jobs are mostly white and pursing bachelor's degrees at four-year colleges, the study found.

Students who work are keeping one leg in the labor market for a few reasons, the report found. While it's no longer possible to work your way through college, adding work hours on top of coursework helps defray the expenses of school, while also helping students gain workplace skills and a network of business contacts.

Still, fewer students today are working while enrolled in college. About 62 percent were working in the 2011-2012 school year, down from 79 percent in 1995-96.

The recession and slow recovery years are partially the cause of the decline, said Carnivale. But there's another problem as well: what Carnivale describes as a "collapse" of the high-wage youth labor market.

"In the 1970s when you went to college, if you were a boy you worked in construction or manufacturing, and worked in the summer to pay for college," he said. "There were relatively high-paid clerical functions for young women. But the youth labor market has been gutted. That started showing up in the 1980s."

With the tuition costs rising and the high-paid jobs drying up, students are increasingly turning to loans to cover the cost of college. U.S. student debt has surged to more than $1.3 trillion.

"What we are drawing a picture of is a very high-stress environment," Carnivale said.

Many students turn to internships as a way to gain work experience, but not all internships are created equal. Paid internships deliver not only money-in-hand but later, they can help more students score jobs, and higher paying ones at that. About two-thirds of students with paying internships received a job offer, compared with 37 percent of those who had an unpaid internship, the study found. About 35 percent of college students without any internship received a job offer.

Of course, unpaid internships are more common in lower-paying occupations such as the arts, while paid internships are the norm in the STEM fields, which tend to provide higher-paying jobs overall.

With STEM-related majors, "it's not just the employability, it's the money," Carnivale said. "You get a lot more out of it."