Can You Work Your Way Through College?

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How many times have you heard the phrase "Work your way through college"? These days, that seems like something you would have heard on a 1960s sitcom, like Leave It to Beaver. Those times are gone forever, though. The rocket-like ascent of college costs has far outstripped a student's ability to go full-time to college, work a job, and graduate free of debt.

New Study Aims to Clarify This Possibility

If you've been a reader of my columns, you've no doubt seen my cautionary reports about college costs and student loan debt over the years. In a word, the facts are shocking. To illustrate just how startling today's reality is for prospective college students who may be entertaining a plan to significantly reduce — perhaps even eliminate — their college costs, I've got the results of a new study that contains some dramatically disappointing news.

My friends at sent me their findings about this topic in an article by Alison Blankenship: Is it Possible to Pay your Way Through College in 2020? It's the firm's second annual study concerning the cost of higher education, and specifically, how many hours students would have to work per week to pay their way through school. You already may be way ahead of what the study reveals. Let's see if your expectations are right.

Those of us who are idealists can sometimes set unrealistic goals when it comes to imagining our economic journey through college. Even non-idealists can be excessively optimistic about what is possible when it comes to saving money while earning a degree. Regardless of your temperament, you'll have to face some sobering facts about college today, mainly cost.

Adjusted for inflation, the cost (tuition and housing) of attending a public four-year school has increased by 178 percent over the last 40 years, so chances are that you'll have some form of debt at graduation. Remember, that 178 percent increase is for public colleges and universities. If you're targeting a private school, the rise may be even greater, depending on the college.

Working Your Way Through College Is Hardest in Pennsylvania

Accordingly, this is where idealistic visions of going to college, working a job, and avoiding loan debt go down in flames like the Hindenburg. Here's some of what Alison has to say about the study:

Can you really still pay your way through college?

To start, we looked at whether or not our relatives were telling us the truth. Turns out, they were. For example, despite a minimum wage of only $2.00/hour at the time, a student attending college beginning in 1974 could have paid for their tuition and housing by working a part-time job for approximately 27.5 hours per week. Add in 12 hours a week to that schedule for courses and you get a full-time job. It's not the easiest schedule, but it's certainly manageable.

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:

1. Pennsylvania: 125 hours

2. New Hampshire: 118 hours

3. Virginia: 103 hours

4. South Carolina: 99 hours

5. Indiana: 98 hours

6. Louisiana: 94 hours

7. Tennessee: 92 hours

8. Delaware: 88 hours

9. Alabama: 88 hours

10. Georgia: 86 hours

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.

I've had personal experience with #1, Pennsylvania. I graduated from Penn State in 1972 and even back then, years before Alison states that the combination of school and a job could produce a debt-free degree, things were financially difficult. Take it from someone who struggled.

Check How the Rankings Were Created

You may be wondering how the TextbookRush team came up with these rankings. Here's how they did it:

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 and College Tuition Compare. 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

That asterisk after the word "Wage" points to some qualifications about how they used the minimum wage from various states in their calculations. If you're a math wonk, you can check those out. To consider your own situation, there's a calculator to run your own scenario through, based on state, in-state vs. out-of-state tuition, and on/off-campus vs. virtual/no housing costs.

Also, at the bottom of the article is a breakdown of every state, including figures for in-state and out-of-state students. Plus, since virtual learning has become a popular trend thanks to COVID-19, the calculator has been updated to help you see just how much easier it is to pay your way through college if you're living at home and saving on housing costs.

You can also check the details of those infamous Top 10 states to see how impossible it would be to work your way through college there. Getting back to Pennsylvania, here are its key factors:

  • In-State Tuition: $12,400 (+8.62%)
  • On-Campus Housing Cost: $14,597 (+1.29%)
  • Minimum Wage: $7.25 (No change)
  • Hours Per Week to Pay: 124.99 (+4.51%)

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 for the second straight year (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, a total that went up nearly 5% compared to 2019.

In my view, Alison's "Ah, Pennsylvania" would be better stated as "Yikes, Pennsylvania!" Having "to work the equivalent of three full-time jobs on top of … schoolwork to break even" is absurd. What a pair of accolades, Pennsylvania — second-highest in-state tuition in the nation and the lowest minimum wage allowable by law. I just looked out my window and thought I saw a flock of birds flying by. Nope, it was dollar signs!

Alison profiles the remaining nine of the Top 10 with stats and comments, pretty well smashing any hopes of graduating debt free for all but full-pay students who will attend college in those states. If you're curious where your state ranks, check out the full rankings at the bottom of the article to see how much you would need to work to pay your education bills. If you need to pay out-of-state tuition or are thinking about living off-campus or at home due to COVID-19, use the calculator.

Working Still Helps Your Bottom Line

Frankly, from working with all the high schoolers I have over the past decades, I can't recall any who proposed working their way through college. They came from either full-pay families or were resigned to apply for financial aid, which, in most cases, included loans. Thus, Alison's article emphasizes the obvious for prospective collegians: Unless your family can pay all the freight, loan debt is likely going to be part of your post-grad reality.

Don't let these frustrating statistics derail your plans to work a job while attending college, though. There's a lot to be said for the satisfaction of earning spending money for yourself and gaining some independence from family support. You won't be able to "work your way through college," but you will be able to work your way through those GrubHub deliveries!