It’s no longer feasible to work your way through college

by Grace

Let’s get this straight once and for all.

It’s impossible to work your way through college nowadays

Michigan State University graduate student Randy Olson listened to “his grandfather extol the virtues of putting oneself through college without family support'”  But then Olson did some calculations to show how that is almost impossible to do today.

Here is the trend of wages and tuition costs from 1987 to 2010.



To get a better sense of the trend, I fit a linear regression to the data. According to the model, students have to work 23.7 extra hours every year to pay for tuition. If we extrapolate this trend back to 1979 and forward to 2013, we recover the same trend that I found in my previous post: The average university student in 1979 only had to work 182 hours per year (a part-time summer job) to pay for tuition, whereas the average 2013 student had to work 991 hours (a full-time job for half the year). That’s over 5x as many hours worked for the same education!

Today’s American Dream differs from that of previous generations.

…  somehow, the idea that we can work our way through college still persists. This ethos seems to be the latest generation’s version of American Dream: If you work long and hard enough, and if you sacrifice enough, you will eventually graduate college without debt and land your dream job. But with the way this trend is going, it looks like even long and hard hours at work won’t even pay off any more.

In short, I’d like my readers to walk away knowing that it’s not nearly as easy to work your way through college as it used to be — stop telling us to do it just because you did a decade or more ago.

Loans and other forms of financial aid make up some of the difference.

… If the Federal aid trends in the past 30 years are any indication, students actually have less of their tuition costs paid for by financial aid nowadays than 30 years ago! With rising costs and lowered financial support, it’s no wonder that student debt has spiraled out of control in the past decade. The system is practically setting the modern university student up for financial failure.

Related:  Recent college graduates suffering worst unemployment rates in 50 years (Cost of College)


8 Comments to “It’s no longer feasible to work your way through college”

  1. There is absolutely no question that students today get less financial aid than in my day. The big change happened in the Reagan era. My brother, who went to college 7 years after I did, could not get nearly the same kind of aid as I did.


  2. It wasn’t possible to work your way through college even in the 80’s, unless you already had a lot of financial aid, or lived at home. I worked FT summers and 20 hours/week in the school year, and didn’t even come close to making what it would have cost me if I didn’t have financial aid. Working mainly paid for books and sundry living expenses.


  3. Actually, students receive more financial aid today, but the growth of college costs has outpaced the growth of financial aid.


  4. It was possible to work your way through college in the ’80s if you attended a public college. On average, a student would just have to work about 6 hours per week to pay for state school tuition during the ’80s. That seems as if it would leave very little gap, most or all of which could be met with a full-time summer job. Today that requires 19 hours per week, which makes the option of working your way almost impossible.


  5. Whether students receive more financial aid depends on how you view that. Public universities have historically received government funding that partially paid the cost of students’ education, and with that level of support dropping, one could make the case that that indirect financial aid has been decreasing.


  6. When I went to college, you could get a Pell grant if your family was lower middle class. Now, Pell grants only go to low income students. In fact, the term “Pell eligible” is used as a synonym for very high need students. Also, when I went to college, the main loan program was the NDSL program, which had an interest rate of something like 1%. In those days, GSLs were supplemental only. Things have changed a lot, and not for the better


  7. “one could make the case that that indirect financial aid has been decreasing.”

    That’s a good point. The combination of total aid, both direct and indirect, may have increased over time.


  8. “Things have changed a lot, and not for the better”

    I think there’s general agreement on that … but not agreement on how to turn things around.


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