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Articles / Applying to College / Can You Work Your Way Through College?

Can You Work Your Way Through College?

Dave Berry
Written by Dave Berry | May 4, 2020
Can You Work Your Way Through College?
Elizabeth French/College Confidential

How many of you high schoolers, current college students or even parents have heard someone proudly say, “I worked my way through college!"? I've heard that, but I've been around a long time and I wasn't one of those hard-working college students back in the late-'60s and early '70s. I've often wondered how truthful those boasters were about their efforts to work their way through school.

The situation today makes it extremely challenging for college students to cover their higher education expenses with a part-time job while attending classes full time. I suppose that one way to accomplish this might be attending a community college. But even then, the slope of difficulty gets much steeper when transferring to a main campus where residency is required.

Another possibility might be pursuing an online degree where classroom attendance is not required, at least for the majority of subjects. Even living at home and commuting to a main campus presents significant hurdles to remaining debt-free because of steep tuition rates. Of course, there's always the issue of in-state versus out-of-state tuition differences. Attending an out-of-state school raises the bar quite a bit

Anyway, what got me thinking about the possibility of emerging from college debt free (or nearly debt free) was an article I received this past week from a contact who keeps me posted about the current financial challenges (and advantages) of going to college. This article, written by TextbookRush's Alison Blankenship asks: Is it Possible to Pay Your Way Through College in 2019?

That's a great question and I think you may be interested in finding out the answer, in quantitative terms, as it applies to your own circumstances. Let's take a look at what Alison has to say.

When I saw the title of this article, the first thing I wanted to know was how this information was calculated, so I looked for the methodology. Not far below the introductory paragraphs, I found How We Calculated the Hardest States to Pay Your Way through College. Here are some key points from that:

Nothing feels better than walking out of your graduation ceremony with a shiny new degree and no debt. Ideally, hard work and dedication would be the key to both. But since not all states are created equally, we determined exactly how much a student in each state would need to work in order to pay for their tuition and housing, leveraging publicly available data from the NCSL [National Conference of State Legislatures] and College Tuition Compare [2019 Tuition, Fees, and College Costs By State]. Here are the criteria we considered:

In-state tuition for the state (lower is better)

On-campus housing costs for the state (lower is better)

Minimum wage pay in the state (higher is better)

Weeks in a school year a student can work (30 weeks: 15 per semester)

After determining the key metrics for each state, we calculated the number of hours per week a student would have to work to pay for tuition and housing using the following formula:

(Average In-State Tuition/State Hourly Minimum Wage*) divided by 30

There are also some notes to clarify the minimum wage situation in various states. By the way, that “College Tuition Compare" link has some very helpful information, so you may want to bookmark it for future reference.

Here's an amazing statistic from the introductory text:

Perhaps most importantly, it will determine how much money you spend over the next four years of your life and how much loan debt you will need to pay off once you get into the real world. Adjusted for inflation, the cost (tuition and housing) of attending a public, four-year school has increased by 259% over the last 40 years, so chances are you'll have at least a little bit of debt.

That link citing the stunning 259 percent increase will take you to another helpful resource, a chart showing Tuition and Fees and Room and Board over Time. I suggest making a bookmark for that, too.

Getting back to specifics, Alison notes that back in 1974 (closer to my collegiate era), it wasn't impossible to come out of college debt free by working a part-time job around 28 hours per week, even with the $2.00 per hour minimum wage at the time. That would mean an average of about four hours on the job per day. Of course this would have cut into some study and party time, but the goal was to reduce debt.

Things are much different today:

Unfortunately, it's not so easy these days. In fact, it's really, really difficult. Here's a quick overview of the 10 hardest states to pay your way through college:

- Pennsylvania

- New Hampshire

- Virginia

- Indiana

- South Carolina

- Louisiana

- Delaware

- Tennessee

- Kentucky

- Alabama

Surprised? You might expect to see states with high tuition costs like Vermont and Rhode Island up at the top, but a student's ability to pay for their education depends on more than just the cost of that education; how much money they are able to make is also an important factor.

Here's the situation in those top three states. All of the top 10 are detailed in the source article, so check out the remaining seven.

1. Pennsylvania (my home state):

In-State Tuition: $11,416

On-Campus Housing Cost: $14,597

Minimum Wage: $7.25

Hours Per Week to Pay: 119.60

Ah, Pennsylvania. With the second-highest in-state tuition in the country and the lowest minimum wage allowable by federal law, it's no surprise they ended up number one on our list (and not in a good way). Students brave enough to try to pay for their tuition and housing in the Keystone State will have to work the equivalent of three full-time jobs on top of their schoolwork to break even.

2. New Hampshire

In-State Tuition: $10,231

On-Campus Housing Cost: $14,702

Minimum Wage: $7.25

Hours Per Week to Pay: 114.63

Different state, same problem. The combination of a high tuition and a rock-bottom minimum wage lay the groundwork for a tough life if you're a student paying your way through school in New Hampshire. On the bright side, you do get five hours back each week compared to Pennsylvania students. We'd recommend using those to sleep.

3. Virginia

In-State Tuition: $8,317

On-Campus Housing Cost: $13,805

Minimum Wage: $7.25

Hours Per Week to Pay: 101.71

One of the most historic states in the country, Virginia has plenty of great schools to offer potential students. Too bad it'll be impossible to come out of school debt-free without a scholarship or other outside help. Things are looking better than our top two, but “better" relative to “terrible" is still not a good place to be.

In addition to these Top 10 states, you can also check out the full rankings of all states in a comprehensive chart to see how much you would need to work to pay your education bills anywhere in the country. There's also a nifty calculator that allows you to select the state, in-state or out-of-state tuition, and on- or off-campus housing. Just click “Submit" to see how many hours you would need to work each week to remain debt free. Warning: Prepare to be shocked!

The lesson here, then, is that college costs have completely overtaken the ability to work your way through and graduate without debt. As noted above, the price of a college degree has -- by far -- outpaced America's overall inflation rate. Why that has happened is a topic for another discussion. For now, though, allow me to leave you with this advice: Avoid excessive loan debt!

To show how extreme student loan debt can be, check out this thread on the College Confidential discussion forum: I'm a 29-Year-Old With $235k in Student Debt. I'll Never Pay It Back. If that's not convincing enough, read this: Cost of college education on way to $250,000.

While it's practically impossible to “work" your way through college these days, far too many students “borrow" their way through and end up with lifetime debt and its associated miseries. Do the math and think about that before you make your enrollment decision.

Written by

Dave Berry

Dave Berry

Dave is co-founder of College Confidential and College Karma Consulting, co-author of America's Elite Colleges: The Smart Buyer's Guide to the Ivy League and Other Top Schools, and has over 30 years of experience helping high schoolers gain admission to Ivy League and other ultra-selective schools. He is an expert in the areas application strategies, stats evaluation, college matching, student profile marketing, essays, personality and temperament assessments and web-based admissions counseling. Dave is a graduate of The Pennsylvania State University and has won national awards for his writing on higher education issues, marketing campaigns and communications programs. He brings this expertise to the discipline of college admissions and his role as a student advocate. His College Quest newspaper page won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award, the Pennsylvania Newspaper Publisher's Association Newspapers in Education Award, the Thomson Newspapers President's Award for Marketing Excellence and the Inland Press Association-University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Mass Communications Inland Innovation Award for the Best New Page. His pioneering journalism program for teenagers, PRO-TEENS, also received national media attention. In addition, Dave won the Newspaper Association of America's Program Excellence Award for Celebrate Diversity!, a program teaching junior high school students about issues of tolerance. His College Knowledge question-and-answer columns have been published in newspapers throughout the United States. Dave loves Corvettes, classical music, computers, and miniature dachshunds. He and his wife Sharon have a daughter, son and four grandchildren.

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