The Myth of Working Your Way Through College

A lot of Internet ink has been spilled over how lazy and entitled Millennials are, but when it comes to paying for a college education, work ethic isn't the limiting factor. The economic cards are stacked such that today’s average college student, without support from financial aid and family resources, would need to complete 48 hours of minimum-wage work a week to pay for his courses—a feat that would require superhuman endurance, or maybe a time machine.

To take a close look at the tuition history of almost any institution of higher education in America is to confront an unfair reality: Each year’s crop of college seniors paid a little bit more than the class that graduated before. The tuition crunch never fails to provide new fodder for ongoing analysis of the myths and realities of The American Dream. Last week, a graduate student named Randy Olson listened to his grandfather extol the virtues of putting oneself through college without family support. But paying for college without family support is a totally different proposition these days, Olson thought. It may have been feasible 30 years ago, or even 15 years ago, but it's much harder now.

He later found some validation for these sentiments on Reddit, where one user had started a thread about the increasing cost per course at Michigan State University. MSU calculates tuition by the "credit hour," the term for the number of hours spent in a classroom per week. By this metric, which is used at many U.S. colleges and universities, a course that's worth three credit hours is a course that meets for three hours each week during the semester. If the semester is 15 weeks long, that adds up to 45 total hours of a student's time. The Reddit user quantified the rising cost of tuition by cost per credit hour:

This is interesting. A credit hour in 1979 at MSU was 24.50, adjusted for inflation that is 79.23 in today dollars. One credit hour today costs 428.75.

Follow-up comments compared the rising cost of academic credit at MSU to changes in the federal minimum wage. In 1979, when the minimum wage was $2.90, a hard-working student with a minimum-wage job could earn enough in one day (8.44 hours) to pay for one academic credit hour. If a standard course load for one semester consisted of maybe 12 credit hours, the semester's tuition could be covered by just over two weeks of full-time minimum wage work—or a month of part-time work. A summer spent scooping ice cream or flipping burgers could pay for an MSU education.

The cost of an MSU credit hour has multiplied since 1979. So has the federal minimum wage. But today, it takes 60 hours of minimum-wage work to pay off a single credit hour, which was priced at $428.75 for the fall semester.

Olson, who's doing his graduate work at MSU, crunched the numbers further to create this graph: 

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His conclusion: "It's impossible to work your way through college nowadays."

According to the graph, the price of an MSU education began exceeding what could reasonably be earned with part-time, minimum-wage work around 1993. That's when a single MSU credit hour became worth more than 20 hours of wages. Imagine a 15-week semester with a course load of 12 credit hours. If each credit hour required 20 hours of minimum wage work, a student would have to work 16 hours a week to pay for school.

That's doable. But today the same student would have to work 48 hours a week at that minimum wage job to pay for his classes.  

This reality is not specific to MSU. Last week, Olson set out to analyze a more comprehensive data set: in-state tuition costs for all public 4-year universities in the U.S. from 1987 through 2010. This weekend he posted a new graph showing that the 1987-2010 national trend mirrors the 1979-2013 MSU trend. Instead of comparing minimum-wage hours to the price of a single credit hour for one semester, here Olson shows what it would take to pay for a whole year's tuition.

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He added a linear regression analysis to extrapolate the stats for 1979-2013, and found that the average student in 1979 could work 182 hours (a part-time summer job) to pay for a year's tuition. In 2013, it took 991 hours (a full-time job for half the year) to accomplish the same.

And this is only considering the cost of tuition, which is hardly an accurate representation of what students actually spend for college. According to the College Board, average room and board fees at public universities today exceed tuition costs by a little more than 100 percent. (For the current academic year, average tuition at 4-year public schools is $8,893, but with room and board, the total average cost comes to $18,391.)

Is it any surprise that so many students today are suckered into taking out non-dischargeable loans, in growing chunks, to pay for their bachelor's degrees? More than two-thirds of recent graduates are carrying debt—and some of them will be paying it off for decades to come. Studying computer science at Harvey Mudd may be worth it; majoring in art at Murray State probably isn't.

It's more important than ever to make sure that, if you're not working 40+ hours a week at a minimum-wage job while in college, you'll be able to get a better-paying job after graduation.





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