‘Working Your Way Through College’ Now Basically a Myth

When we talked about the guy with 13 kids last week, I mentioned how I liked the idea of my kids “working their way through college” like my parents did. Many of you were quick to point out that this was no longer feasible, that “working your way through college” now means “working your way through college and then also spending the next decade or more paying off your student loans.” Which, come to think about, is exactly my experience.

This story in the Atlantic tackles that very thing. By comparing the minimum wage and the cost of one credit hour at Michigan State University in 1979 and 2013, taking into account inflation, it’s pretty easy to see how an MSU grad student came to the conclusion that, “It’s impossible to work your way through college nowadays.”

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.

1979 just so happens to be the time my parents were both at Florida State, working part-time to support themselves and gearing up to meet each other at a dorm party. And then 25 years later, get bitterly divorced! No student loan debt though.