College Costs Far Outpace Wages Many Students Could Earn

Working can help cover college costs, but avoiding student loan debt with a part-time job is nearly impossible.
Elizabeth Renter
By Elizabeth Renter 
Edited by Kathy Hinson

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There was a time when college students could work their way to an undergraduate degree with a part-time job and a little help from Mom and Dad. But the cost of a college education has grown dramatically, while wages and the hours in a day have not.

In 1971, tuition and fees plus room and board at a four-year public institution of higher learning was $1,410, on average, according to the College Board. By the 2020-21 school year, it was $22,180. That’s an increase of 1,473%. During that same period, the federal minimum wage grew from $1.60 to $7.25, or 353%, according to the Department of Labor.

Reliance on student loans has been increasing since their creation in the 1960s. Today, college graduates who borrow can expect to leave school with close to $30,000 in student loan debt, according to The Institute for College Access and Success. And while working a part-time job may help reduce that burden, it’s unlikely — if not impossible — that it would entirely eliminate it. In fact, in order to cover the price of their education, they’d need to either find a job paying well over the national minimum wage or put in an unrealistic number of hours.

How many work hours would cover college costs?

College students aren’t generally working high-paying jobs. For many, it’s their first. Assuming they make $9.40 an hour — the average of states’ minimum wages and more than the current federal minimum of $7.25 — they’d need to work a full-time job at 40 hours per week throughout the entire year to cover the cost of attendance. If they made the federal minimum wage, their workweek would need to be 52 hours long.

“Cost of attendance,” in this case, is the average tuition, fees, room and board, and books and supplies for public four-year institutions, roughly $19,500 in the 2020-21 school year, according to the College Board. Of course, if they attended a private school or one where the costs were higher than average, they’d need to work some additional hours.

This net average cost of attendance is after grant aid, which roughly three-fourths of first-time full-time students in this sector qualify for. If they didn’t qualify for grants, they’d have to pick up more work hours. And their wages would be taxed; for simplicity’s sake, these calculations assume before-tax income.

For the average nonstudent, working 40 hours per week is par for the course — it’s “adulting.” But for a full-time college student, it’s not just an advanced-level exercise in time management, it also could be detrimental to their grades.

Fifteen credit hours is the typical course load for a full-time student. That means 15 hours of class time each week. Add outside study and prep time to that, and full-time students generally spend 30-45 hours each week on learning endeavors. In essence, the time spent on academics equates to the time typically spent on a full-time job, which makes it difficult to fit in another, paying full-time job.

But what if a student earned more? Maybe they live in Washington, D.C., where the minimum wage is $15 per hour, for example. At that hourly rate, they’d need to work 25 hours per week, year-round to cover the cost of attendance. Possible? Yes. But maybe only recommended with a light course load and good time management skills.

Student loans are often necessary

Grants, scholarships, savings, parents’ and student’s paychecks, and, yes, student loans are all part of the pot that funds a degree. Students generally exhaust all others before turning to loans. Only loans require repayment. Still, more than 60% of college graduates leave school with student loan debt, according to The Institute of College Access and Success. With college prices as high as they are, student loans are often necessary.

Students have little say in the sticker price of their higher education or the wages they command as young adults. So when they have to rely on loans, minimizing the impact is key in protecting long-term financial health. To manage student loan debt, students can:

  • Fill out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA, on time, every year, to qualify for federal, state and school grants and need-based aid.

  • Prioritize federal student loans before private student loans, for lower interest rates and features like income-driven repayment and student loan forgiveness.

  • Apply for any and all scholarships they qualify for.

  • Find a work-study job, if eligible.

  • Take on a part-time job only if their course load allows.

Student loans are there for the taking and generally considered a package deal with a college degree. Federal student loans in particular have relatively low interest rates and income-based repayment plans to make paying them back manageable. Take steps to minimize your debt, but stop short of putting your grades and mental or physical health in jeopardy. An unsustainable work-study-life balance can jeopardize earning a degree and reaping its financial benefits — the primary purpose of paying for this education in the first place.

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