Is It Still Possible to Work Your Way Through College?

Is It Still Possible to Work Your Way Through College? Here's the Answer


We’ve all heard the stories of our parents and grandparents picking themselves up by their bootstraps, working through college, and finishing their degree debt-free. They seem to expect us to be able to do the same – but is that even possible anymore?

To answer the question, I did some research on the costs of college through the years, looking at statistics from PBS NewsHour, MarketWatch, Bloomberg, and more.

One of the best resources I found to explore the real price of higher education was an Earnings-To-Costs calculator created by several team members from PBS. With this tool, you are able to input your earnings by wage and how many hours you work, and compare it to the average price of college through the years, from 1976 to 2010.

When I input my income, I wasn’t even close to being able to pay for my four-year, private institution. But what about the average student?

I put in a student working 20 hours per week during the school year and 40 hours per week in the summer, at the federal minimum wage (currently $7.25/hour), at a four-year public university, and found that it really was possible for our parents and grandparents to work themselves through college.

Us? Not so much.

Even if you’re working 40 hours every week all year (even during school) at minimum wage, you won’t make enough to cover the cost of an average public, 4-year school, according to PBS’s calculator.

And that’s not surprising. The cost of college has risen more than five times since our parents were in school. Svati Kirsten Narula of The Atlantic used Michigan State University (MSU) as her example, claiming that, in 1979, a credit hour at MSU cost just $24.50.

“Adjusted for inflation that is 79.23 in today's dollars,” she wrote, but, “one credit hour today costs $428.75.”

And while the minimum wage has increased since then, as well, it hasn’t gone up as much as tuition has. According to Narula, it would take 60 hours of work at the current minimum wage to cover just one credit hour at MSU, and since most students take 12-18 credits each semester, that means that students need to find between 720 and 1,080 hours of time to work, just to cover a single semester’s tuition. (That’s about six months of 40-hour workweeks.) In our parents’ time, they would have only had to work about one month, part time, to cover their tuition for the semester.

And while it may be possible to work about 60 hours each week and pay for tuition yourself, you probably aren’t going to be able to keep a high GPA while doing so. According to Bloomberg, any more than about 15 hours of work each week can be detrimental to a student’s grades – and we’re talking four times that.

That doesn’t include other costs of college, like housing, meal plans, clothes, and textbooks. We’d have to work even more to pay for these things.

My conclusion? It is definitely impossible for the modern college student to work their way to a degree. And while that is really sad, it doesn’t look like that’s going to change any time soon.

Knowing all of this, it’s easy to get discouraged about paying for higher education – but don’t fret. There are so many more scholarships and financial aid opportunities available now than there were in the 1970’s and 80’s – you’re bound to find something to help you cover the costs. Plus, there are a lot of student loan repayment programs available all across the country, so do some digging around before you get discouraged or decide not to go to college all together.

If you are struggling to pay for school, there are lots of resources available to help you manage your money in college and save yourself from drowning in student loan debt. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. Even if your parents and grandparents can’t work your way through college for you anymore, hopefully, they’ll be able to steer you in the right direction toward a bright financial future.

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