As of 2017, 41- 43% of full-time undergraduates who are between the ages of 16 – 24 – and who are not considered heads of households or supporting dependents – are working. When comparing the rates of employment for these full time students across racial and ethnic groups, there are no significant differences. These findings suggest that for the current and upcoming collegiate undergraduate populations, gaining and maintaining employment while attending college may be an expected co-curricular experience.

If higher education can now expect that the college campus will be populated with working learners (i.e., students who are concurrently employed at least 30 hours a week and enrolled at least part-time in college), what responsibility or best practices can universities and colleges implement to both acknowledge and support these students? I believe the answer to this critical question is nested within the pursuit of equity and inclusion.

In a 2014 study examining the generational differences for reasons to attend college, Twenge and Donnelly found that millennials (persons attending colleges and universities in the 2000s and 2010s) valued extrinsic motivators more than previous generations, such as the boomers (persons attending colleges and universities in 1960s and 1970s). These extrinsic motivators included a view that college attendance would result in making more money or that it is a necessary step towards preparation for graduate school and future careers. Twenge and Donnelly (2014) also found that millennials were the least likely to consider college as a place of increasing just general learning as a major reason for attendance. The researchers tie growing income inequity and larger cultural movements to these generational shifts towards extrinsic motivators for college enrollment. Given these findings, we must assume that students will prioritize and prefer academic and co-curricular experiences that they can easily fit into a framework that propels them toward the goal of future success (i.e., career, continued education, and sustained income stability). This functional perspective of college translates into students attempting to receive an education while limiting their reliance on loans and instead seeking employment. This may also mean that students will need to choose co-curricular involvements that are the most cost effective, for example not taking an internship if it is unpaid. Another example may include limiting time working with a faculty member on research if it means that time commitment prevents the student from working the necessary hours to gain enough income to cover expenses.

Student employment can be a challenge if it conflicts with co-curricular opportunities, and this conflict is likely to arise if the student employment is off campus and not affiliated with any academic or campus program. I will echo what I wrote in a previous blog about the importance of finding a good job. A good job is one that can enrich the academic experience, is often on campus, and most importantly is meaningful for the student’s current and future success. Federal- and institutional-work-study programs are uniquely positioned to minimize this potential conflict for students, while simultaneously addressing access, equity, and inclusion. An example of galvanizing federal-work-study (FWS) placements to create an innovative path for students to engage in a high impact practice is the OSCAR program at George Mason University (Nazaire & Usher, 2015). This program, from the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research creates and sustains student placement with faculty to engage in undergraduate research. Students who are eligible for FWS, which means they are economically disadvantaged and at greater risk for attrition in the first two years of college, are recruited and given mentorship to serve as OSCAR research assistants. Nazaire and Usher (2015) evaluated this program and found that one of the major barriers students listed for not engaging in internships or research was that these are often unpaid experiences. They highlighted the comments of a student who reflected on the fact that his or her classmates from more “well-off backgrounds” were deepening their resumes and CVs with these experiences and that this inequitable opportunity structure was contributing to the perpetuation of stunted social immobility post-graduation for students from more modest income backgrounds.

In addition to receiving opportunities that keep OSCAR students on pace with other classmates from more economically advantageous backgrounds were the opportunities for mentorship. What makes a job a high impact practice is not just meaningful experience but the development of social capital through guided training and personal investment. Another benefit of the OSCAR program is that it takes away the expectation that students initiate relationship or assistantship with a faculty member. The program also reduces the ability of faculty to tap only students that catch their eye, a process that is problematic given that we easily fall into patterns that might unintentionally overlook qualified students from different backgrounds than ourselves. In fact, the OSCAR program saw higher numbers of participation in undergraduate research across all ethnic and racial groups in comparison to the general population of students not involved with OSCAR.

I do not think that the OSCAR program can work at every institution; George Mason University is a public research intensive-university, which means that the expectations for faculty research, graduate student involvement, and number of students needed to support research projects is different from other smaller institutions. However, intentionally creating frameworks or institutional structures that facilitate student engagement in HIPs is key in sustaining diversity, inclusion and equity.

Works Cited

College Student Enrollment. 2019. “In the Condition of Education 2019.” Retrieved June 26, 2019 from

Nazaire, Denise Wanda, and Bethany McKay Usher. 2015. “Increasing the participation of historically underrepresented groups in undergraduate research using federal work-study.” Perspectives on Undergraduate Research and Mentoring, 4.1. Retrieved July 11, 2019 from

Twenge, Jean M., and Kristen Donnelly. 2016. “Generational differences in American students’ reasons for going to college, 1971–2014: The rise of extrinsic motives.” The Journal of Social Psychology, 156 (6): 620-629, DOI: 10.1080/00224545.2016.1152214

Buffie Longmire-Avital, associate professor of psychology and coordinator of African and African-American studies, is the 2018-2020 Center for Engaged Learning Scholar. Dr. Longmire-Avital’s CEL Scholar project focuses on diversity and inclusion in high-impact practices.

How to cite this post:

Longmire-Avital, Buffie. 2019, July 16. Tackling Inequitable Opportunity Structures in HIPs. [Blog Post]. Retrieved from