Not to shit on the American dream here or anything, but the fact is, it really isn’t possible to work your way through college anymore. Sure, there are exceptions to every rule, but in general, any job you’re going to have while also being able to attend all your classes and get all your assignments done isn’t going to pay close to enough to cover those bills.
First, consider the rising cost of college tuition. “It’s very obvious that college tuition across the board has gone up,” says Randal S. Olsen, the lead data scientist at Life Epigenetics, Inc., who has done several studies on this subject. According to CNBC, there’s been an average of a more than 200 percent increase in the cost of college tuition since 1987.
As for why, it’s depressingly simple. Olsen explains that the pressures to go to college are higher than ever — and so, with fewer and fewer careers out there that don’t require a degree, more and more kids are going to college. To meet this demand, colleges have to expand: They need new buildings and new parking lots and more on-campus housing and more professors. Olsen also cites the fact that states are constantly cutting the money they send to colleges, so colleges need more money to accommodate the influx of students.
While there are a few overpaid administrators in some colleges, that still doesn’t account for the “tens of millions of dollars that colleges need to pull in,” says Olsen. And professors certainly aren’t getting the money — as Olsen notes, some adjunct professors qualify for public assistance due to their low pay, despite holding masters degrees in their field.
Worse yet, the minimum wage, which stands at a paltry $7.25, hasn’t kept pace with the astronomic increase in tuition. Citing the numbers from his study of national college tuition rates vs. the federal minimum wage, Olsen states, “The average university student in 1979 only had to work 182 hours per year (just shy of 23 eight-hour days!) to pay for the whole year of college tuition. However, in 2013, the average student had to work 991 hours pay the tuition.” That’s the difference between a simple summer job and working nearly 124 eight-hour shifts, something that a college student probably can’t manage with the burdens of school.
Olsen’s data shows a historical analysis of tuition rates vs. the number of hours needed to work to pay that tuition, and it’s clear that while it’s been rising steadily since the late 1980s, it hits a huge spike around 2005. Olsen says there was no one specific catalyst for things to get out of control at this time — that simply seems to be the point where the threshold was crossed, where the numbers no longer added up and paying your way through school became unsustainable.
2005, then, was the year from which students had to work at least 20 hours a week to keep pace with tuition. Having worked with kids in work-study programs himself, Olsen says that those students who worked even close to that many hours often were exhausted. If one were to exceed those 20 hours, it’s reasonable to assume that their education would suffer. Not to mention that maybe people might want to enjoy their college experience a little bit.
Here’s the next wrinkle: None of Olsen’s numbers take into account the cost of living. They’re only tuition. If you’re working at Wendy’s, you may think that you can get by on the nuggets that fall to the floor and a stolen Baconator here and there, but the truth is, you’re going to have to spend some money on food as well as other living expenses. And since the rate of tuition is already past the max of 20 hours, there’s little chance you’re going to be able to pay for food, rent, transportation and college textbooks on top of that without begging your parents for money every week.
These challenges become even more difficult if you’re outside of a big city. “The combination of poverty, lower wages, more limited opportunities and the rising cost of college tuition is especially difficult on children from rural areas,” says John White, the former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Rural Outreach for the Department of Education. White explains that despite the fact that cost of living is higher in big cities, they have many more opportunities, higher salaries and often don’t require a car to travel. This disparity becomes especially clear when you see that “rural kids are the least likely to go to college,” says White.
So what can be done about it? No one has a clear answer.
Olsen says that most college-bound high school graduates should consider spending two years at a community college first, as well as considering careers that require only trade schools. He even points to the military as a good option — if that’s right for you — as they’ll pay your way through college afterwards.
Maybe a $15 minimum wage would help, as that would reasonably cut in half the amount of hours you’d have to work at the current minimum wage, but then perhaps fewer jobs will be available. Financial aid can help, but those resources are limited and highly competitive. Some states, like Arizona, help pay for their residents to go to college, but there are only a handful of those kinds of opportunities throughout the country.
In other words: You better keep sucking up to your parents.