New Tool Helps Families Determine if Working Through College is Enough to Pay for It

Posted By Eliana Osborn on October 21, 2015 at 12:03 pm
New Tool Helps Families Determine if Working Through College is Enough to Pay for It

Some families pay for college up front, while others cobble together an assortment of student loans and other financial aid. Others suggest that students working while taking classes is the simplest way to reduce debt.  But does working during college even make a difference toward educational expenses?

A new tool from the Chronicle of Education lets families see how many hours it would take working at minimum wage to pay for tuition and fees at each state’s top public university.  There are dozens of other expenses, of course – things like food, for example – that the tool does not take into account. But in the most basic equation, tuition and fees are what are most often considered.

Sandhya Kambhampati and Meredith Myers created the calculator using a lot of different data: institutional tuition since 1998, inflation, each state’s minimum wage and more.  Working with just the flagship school for each state, they estimated how long students would have to work to pay for a year at the school.  There are no scholarships or financial aid included, so individual situations will vary.

According to the creators, “For the forthcoming academic year, attending a flagship university will cost about $10,500, on average, while the average minimum wage across states is $7.90. To put that in perspective, if you work a minimum-wage job for 20 hours a week, it would take you about one year and three months to get in the black.”

That’s without any other living expenses. And that means that a student  cannot, on average, get a degree in four years while working at minimum wage without outside financial assistance.

States with the worst numbers?  New Hampshire and Pennsylvania would take more than two years of work to pay for one year of enrollment.  Better options are primarily in the west: Alaska, Idaho, Nevada, Wyoming and Montana, plus Florida and West Virginia, cost less than a year of work for a year of school.

There is a push nationwide to change minimum wage, increasing it to $15 per hour.  Such a shift would make most universities more plausibly affordable to working students, though that changes once you factor in cost of living.

“The overall message here is clear: The majority of flagships have seen their tuition and fees rise rapidly, while the minimum wage has increased slowly. That shows how difficult the math behind college accessibility can be — and why financial aid is such a difference-maker,” said the tool’s creators.

Follow this link ( to access the tool at the bottom of the page.  Choose your state, number of hours you plan to work, and the hourly pay in that state.  A chart will show you historical data, as well as current information.

Eliana Osborn
Eliana Osborn is an associate English professor at Arizona Western College, with degrees from Brigham Young University and Northern Arizona University. She’s published widely in forums such as The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Chronicle of Higher Education.

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