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Working through college: A tale of two cities

A recent report from researchers at UCLA  and Los Angeles Community College District, ‘Unseen Costs’, highlighted the pressure on many students in Los Angeles County. Despite being one of the richest metropolitan regions in the world with a population of just over 10 million, more than half of its students are struggling with part-time jobs and inadequate funding. This mirrors a similar situation in the UK and further emphasises the widening gap between those with and those without family support. The COVID-19 crisis exacerbates the situation and will continue well into the coming year. The UK is not the only jurisdiction that urgently needs to help its students and avoid a generation losing out. There are uncomfortable parallels with London where students might have more in common with their peers in Los Angeles than they might think. 


One of the greatest lines in English literature “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times” opens a tale of two major world cities set just before the French revolution (See *NOTE below). It still resonates today as we think of other major world cities. For many young people, our times are the “season of light” and the “spring of hope”. But for others, they can be the “season of darkness” and the “winter of despair”. The idea of the heroic student working their way through college to make it in life is deeply embedded in the psyche of the American people. Yet the reality often falls short of heroic for those caught up in the struggle. It may represent the worst of times for them. 



The Los Angeles Tale 



The results of a recent survey of students across Los Angeles County ‘Unseen Costs: The Experiences of Workers and Learners in Los Angeles County’ was launched last week (see **Note below). The presentations are recorded on Facebook, with the link #WorkersAndLearners Report Launch, and include students stories that set the scene well. 



The report serves as a timely reminder of the toll university and college life exerts on the many students who work part-time to fund their studies. It is substantial at 85 pages and provides considerable insight into the working lives of many students. Using 454 students trained in the survey methods, 869 face-to-face surveys of 30 minutes and 75 in-depth interviews were conducted. The focus was on those that had worked 16 or more hours in the previous week. 



The headline observation is that 52% of undergraduates worked to support themselves while studying. This means around 377,000 of the total 725,000 undergraduate population in LA. Citing the ‘U.S. Census, American Community Survey 5-year sample 2014–2018’, the report was prepared against a backdrop of 86% of ‘workers and learners’ in California employed for over 15 hours per week. They were therefore not difficult to find. The surprise is the number of hours worked with 53% of those working doing so full-time at over 30 hours per week as defined by the OECD (see Figure 1). Only truly heroic students can succeed under this pressure. Indeed, some of the testimonies in the ‘Unseen Costs’ report bear witness to how it is done. In one case working from 6am to midnight and others holding down two jobs.


A major issue is the rising cost of living and accommodation rents compounded by most working for low pay. The term ‘food insecurity’ is used to describe the experience of going hungry. These mean that many work for more hours than they should at the expense of their studies. Then there is the added burden of time spent commuting between home, jobs and university or college. Although many indicate that they have taken time out from studies and extended their time at university, too many seem to have tried to maintain full-time attendance alongside their jobs. The result appears to be a life of stress and exhaustion, “poor physical and mental health, a decline in coursework completion, inconsistent attendance, and lower credit attainment rates”. 

The face-to-face approach is a key feature of the ‘Unseen Costs’ survey. It has led to many illuminating testimonies from students that shine a light on their lives. They make for uncomfortable reading for me as a former lecturer in the UK. The stories are poignant, and all academics should read the report. In my experience, all too many academics fail to understand what is happening to some of their students. One plea sums up the situation well 

“I would not be working if I didn’t have to do it. I would love to just be able to go to school”. 

COVID-19 impacts. 

A supplementary report ‘A Survey of Workers and Learners in Los Angeles County During COVID-19’, produced at the same time, paints a stark picture of the plight of what is termed 'worker earners'. A further 236 surveys, collected from Los Angeles public colleges and universities in April and May 2020, showed that half were laid off, terminated, or furloughed from their job. Of those in work, 45% had their hours reduced. The 35-page report provides a warning of what is coming down the line if the economy picks up too slowly in the coming year. 

An alternative headline. 

This might easily read ‘Almost half of the students in Los Angeles County are not burdened by part-time employment when studying'. This alternate view is important when reaching the inevitable conclusion that there is a two-tier system operating. Those with time to study are at a distinct advantage over those with less time. This should not be forgotten. One of the conclusions of the ‘Unseen Costs’ report is that students with less time are missing classes or extending their studies. This would be a sensible way to ensure that they achieve decent grades. However, many are also forgoing their grades to stay afloat in a job. The dichotomy of an advantaged class pressing on while others simply try to catch up is painful to witness. 

UK parallels: The London Tale. 

For most in the UK, the world of California and Los Angeles seems distant and strange. We see it on the news and in films as very different from anything around us here. But the parallel experiences of people are similar. Having driven around LA a few times from the relative comfort of what one student called the “Westwood bubble”, where most of the UCLA campus is located, it extends as an enormous metropolis with legendary traffic congestion. But there is nothing new in that. Also, just as in the UK, the wide gap between rich and poor is evident across LA County. 

So making comparisons is interesting. California is the fifth-largest economy in the world with an estimated population of 39.6 million in 2019 and a GDP of $3.26 trillion (US Government Spending Estimate 2020). This is estimated to be $70,662 per capita in 2019 rising from $55,149 in 2010 (Statista), In contrast, the UK has a larger population of 66.8 million with a smaller total GDP of $2.61 trillion (derived from Office for National Statistics 2019 estimates). This is estimated to be $40,392 per capita (Statista) rising from $39,122 in 2010. The austerity measures of the UK government over that period are clear and evident in the slow GDP progress. However, there is no doubt that both economies are amongst the richest in the world. 

Looking closer, the LA county population was estimated at 10,039,107 in 2019 with a GDP of $710.9 billion (Bureau of Economic Analysis 2019). It captures most of the LA metropolitan area that has a GDP per capita of $70,975 for 2020 (Open Data Network 2020). The Greater London metropolitan area has a population of 9.06 million estimated for 2020 (Statista) and a GDP of $633.9 billion in 2018 (derived from Office for National Statistics ’Regional economic activity by gross domestic product, UK: 1998 to 2018’. The comparisons are of two similarly large and rich city areas. 

Student populations. 

Los Angeles County has one of the highest concentrations of public colleges and universities in California with 22 community colleges (including the nine community colleges in the Los Angeles Community College District), five California State Universities and one University of California University. Citing 2017 data from The Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS) 2017, ‘Unseen Costs’ notes that there were a total of 789,599 undergraduate students (622,065 in Community Colleges, 134,389 in California State Universities and 33,145 in UCLA itself). 

The different types of institutions in the UK make direct comparisons a bit more difficult. But the London metropolitan area is reported to have a total of 374,670 students spread across 38 universities (latest HESA 2018/19 data). If Community Colleges are loosely equated to Further Education Colleges in the UK, then some comparison can be made. In the UK, the Association of Colleges does not break down their student data into regions. But there are 244 colleges in England accommodating around 2.2 million students. Interestingly, just over one million are adult learners over the age of 25 years. This means that the 48 colleges in London probably have around 430,000 students at least. The total numbers are therefore comparable to the LA county figures.

There are undoubtedly many students working and learning at the same time.
However, survey data from across the UK suggests that this is not as high as 50%. Figure 2 shows the distribution of hours worked by UK students taken from the Student Academic Experience Survey annual survey reports from Advance HE / Higher Education Policy Institute (HEPI) between 2012 and 2019.

Commuting and working. 

One issue highlighted in ‘Unseen Costs’ is travel, commuting and access to public transport. Travelling across LA can be difficult as I have found. The same is the case in London. However, London has an extensive public transport system. It is expensive, but it works well most of the time. However, a report in 2019 by London Higher ‘Commuter Students in London’ concluded that commuter students were at a disadvantage in terms of outcome when compared to their peers. TEFS has also concluded that across the UK many commuting students have the added burden of jobs in term-time (TEFS 23rd August 2019 ‘Students working in term-time: Commuter students and their working patterns’). It would be interesting to see if the proportion of students working and commuting in London was greater than the UK average. 

Funding access: Do not ask for whom the Pell tolls. 

In some ways, students in the USA have an advantage over those in the UK since there are Federal and State grants available. These are called Federal Pell grants, that were introduced across the USA in 1975, and Cal Grants, managed by the California Student Aid Commission. There are also grants for students who have been in care and so-called ‘Middle Class Scholarships’ for students from families with income and assets up to $184,000 to attend the University of California (UC) or California State University (CSU). However, these can only offset between 10% and 40% of the fees. 

In stark contrast, the UK abolished student maintenance grants from 2016/17 in England. This was seen by many as a retrograde move. Instead, means-tested loans for maintenance are now available in addition to loans for paying fees as outlined by ‘Student finance – how you're assessed and paid 2020 to 2021’. However, even full loans are insufficient to support students throughout the year. The maximum maintenance loan possible in London is £12,010 (around $14,000) per annum. However, this only applies to those from families with an annual income below £25,000 (around $31,000). Most will only get around 50% of the maximum loan approved and need to make up the shortfall. 

Of course, living costs are rising fast in London and it seems that whatever support is available is not going to be enough. Imperial College London estimates that at least £16,500 is required per year to live in rented accommodation in London. The shortfall is considerable for many students and this can only be met by family contributions or by part-time working, making the outcome inevitable. 

Similarly, the problem identified for students in Los Angeles is that costs are racing well ahead of both Federal and State aid. As for London, both provide inadequate funding. The current Pell grant is set at $6,345 per annum and depends on a complex means-tested application (see the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) www site). Similarly, the basic Cal Grant, outside of some help for tuition fees, is $1,672 per year as a “living allowance to help pay for books and other college costs”. The ‘Unseen Costs’ report noted that “The California Student Aid Commission found that, in 2018-2019, the average California learners spent about $2,000 a month to cover housing, food, textbooks, and other expenses, in addition to tuition”. This means there is a similar shortfall to that experienced in London. 

The ‘Unseen Costs’ report makes it clear that the grants are inadequate and plunge students into the part-time job market to survive. This lies at the root of the escalating problem for students in both jurisdictions. Living costs have escalated and the grants or loans fail to go very far. The result is more than half of the students spend time in jobs and commuting to and from home at the expense of their studies. Many are making truly heroic efforts. Meanwhile, others can comfortably race ahead in their courses with more time for assignments and networking. Maybe one day our advanced societies will advance enough to offer light and hope for all who will have everything before them. Hopefully, we can avoid a revolution.

Mike Larkin, retired from Queen's University Belfast after 37 years teaching Microbiology, Biochemistry and Genetics. He has served on the Senate and Finance and planning committee of a Russell Group University.

*NOTE Charles Dickens opened ‘A Tale of Two Cities’,  that was set before a period of brutal revolution and war, with; 

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way”. 


**NOTE. The survey ‘UNSEEN COSTS The Experiences of Workers and Learners in Los Angeles County’ was carried out by The University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA) Labor Center and the Dolores Huerta Labor Institute of the Los Angeles Community College District, in partnership with the UCLA Institute for Research and Employment and the UCLA Labor Studies program.

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