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The whole work-your-way-through-college thing is nonsense. Do the math

Without a scholarship of some kind or financial support from parents, it is essentially impossible for a typical student at a public college to work her way through school. Randal Olson created the chart above to illustrate the problem, using his own institution, Michigan State University, as an example. He assumes that a college student will have a hard time finding work that pays more than minimum wage:

The 1979 student would have to work about 10 weeks at a part-time job (~203 hours) — basically, they could pay for tuition just by working part-time over the Summer. In contrast, the 2013 student would have to work for 35 ½ weeks (~1420 hours) — over half the year — at a full-time job to pay for the same number of credit hours. If you’ve ever attended college full-time, you know that this is basically impossible.

Perhaps it’s no surprise that tuition costs are rising, and college is becoming less and less affordable by the year. Yet somehow, the idea that we can work our way through college still persists. This ethos seems to be the latest generation’s version of American Dream: If you work long and hard enough, and if you sacrifice enough, you will eventually graduate college without debt and land your dream job. But with the way this trend is going, it looks like even long and hard hours at work won’t even pay off any more.

A typical student paying in-state tuition at an public school and earning the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour would have to work 1,227 hours during the year to cover the average cost of tuition reported by the College Board. That is not quite as many as Olson’s MSU student, but Olson’s numbers don’t even include room and board. The total cost of college for typical students studying in state, according to the board, is much higher, about $22,826 this academic year. A person working minimum wage would have to work 3,148 hours to cover that cost, that is, more than eight and a half hours a day, every single day of the year, including Christmas.

Many students would qualify for a subsidized federal student loan of up to $5,550, which would reduce the burden substantially, but it would still be impossible for a student to do a decent job on her coursework at the same time (and that, after all, is the whole point of college). Some lucky ones will be able to find work that pays a little better, and others will get help from their parents, but many will just borrow from unscrupulous private lenders to make ends meet. As a result, the student debt burden continues to impede economic recovery. This wasn’t always the case, of course, but costs have risen as state support for public colleges has declined.

As always, many thanks to Olson for the use of his very simple and very depressing chart. Click below for ideas on how to fix the problem.

Max Ehrenfreund | March 25, 2014 at 10:01 am
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