Is "Putting Yourself Through College" an Option for Today’s Teens?

by Leigh Anderson
Originally Published: 

The cost of tuition has risen faster than the wages students earn while attending college, says a new story in the Atlantic. A student with no family assistance or financial aid would have to log 48 hours a week of minimum-wage work in order to pay for her college course work.

The numbers, using Michigan State University’s tuition schedule as an example: In 1979 a credit hour was $24.50 ($79.23 in today’s dollars) at MSU; the federal minimum wage was $2.90. That means that a student had to work about eight and a half hours to pay for one credit hour. A month of part-time work, or a summer’s full-time job, could pay for a semester’s education.

Not anymore. The cost of a credit hour has risen to $428.75. So a student would have to work 60 hours to pay off that single credit hour. A 12-credit-hour semester would mean a student would have to flip burgers roughly 48 hours a week—on top of the course load—to pay her way through college.

The Atlantic credits a graduate student named Randy Olson with crunching the numbers and concluding that “It’s impossible to work your way through college nowadays.” According to Olson, if you graduated college in 1993, you were in the last wave of people who could reasonably be expected to put themselves through college: That’s the moment when a single credit hour cost more than 20 hours of work, so a student could work 16 hours a week and still get by.

It’s not just MSU—Olson crunched the numbers and found that the MSU trend is echoed by other public universities’ costs. A 2013 student would have to work a full-time job for six months to pay for a year’s tuition.

Think that’s bad? This is only tuition; forget room and board. For the frugal student, living at home might be only sensible option, if that even is an option. For students whose parents can’t assist them, there’s always the not-great option of non-dischargeable loans.

And if they can’t get a job after graduation? Well, they’re back at square one, four years later.

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