Has it become impossible to work your way through college?

That’s what the Atlantic claims in an article yesterday.

In 1979, when the minimum wage was $2.90, a hard-working student with a minimum-wage job could earn enough in one day (8.44 hours) to pay for one academic credit hour. If a standard course load for one semester consisted of maybe 12 credit hours, the semester’s tuition could be covered by just over two weeks of full-time minimum wage work—or a month of part-time work. A summer spent scooping ice cream or flipping burgers could pay for an MSU education.

The cost of an MSU credit hour has multiplied since 1979. So has the federal minimum wage. But today, it takes 60 hours of minimum-wage work to pay off a single credit hour, which was priced at $428.75 for the fall semester.

Olson, who’s doing his graduate work at MSU, crunched the numbers further to create this graph:

His conclusion: “It’s impossible to work your way through college nowadays.”

According to the graph, the price of an MSU education began exceeding what could reasonably be earned with part-time, minimum-wage work around 1993. That’s when a single MSU credit hour became worth more than 20 hours of wages. Imagine a 15-week semester with a course load of 12 credit hours. If each credit hour required 20 hours of minimum wage work, a student would have to work 16 hours a week to pay for school.

That’s doable. But today the same student would have to work 48 hours a week at that minimum wage job to pay for his classes.

There’s more at the link.

48 hours of work, on top of a normal academic workload – let alone time to eat, wash and sleep?  No way!

The inimitable Karl Denninger has some blunt observations about this reality.

The reason the price [of a degree] went up 600% is the availability of [student] loans.

. . .

The result of this paradigm and the unholy alliance between banks, Wall Street, Washington DC and the colleges themselves is that the marginal utility of college degrees for many, perhaps even the majority of students, is now negative.

Remember that the school, the lender, Wall Street and Washington DC do not care about individual outcomes.  They could give a damn about whether college is a good deal for you.

That is what happens when anything becomes financialized; the only metric that matters is the aggregate outcome for the financial chef; that is, his goal is to strip all but one penny of the benefit on average from the participants and keep it.

The closer he gets to that goal the more money he makes.  He does not care about your outcome, only that in aggregate the pool of “buyers” keep just enough that the next group will come in the door.

. . .

The colleges are not only aware of this they are willing participants in that they have their own finance offices that will help you arrange for your own fiscal destruction and, if they (or you) can talk your parents into it, theirs as well.

Again, more at the link.

More food for thought for anyone considering a college or university education, or who has kids that are about to enter upon such an education.  I’d honestly recommend that for most students, they’d be better served to do what I did:  get a job, start earning a living right away, and study for their basic degree through distance and/or online education (which typically costs much less than full-time study).  I completed my first degree, a Bachelor of Arts, through correspondence study at the University of South Africa.  Thanks to the vagaries of civil conflict, military service, and a whole bunch of extraneous factors, it took me a decade to complete it;  but I did so without having to go into debt, and by the time I finished it I’d learned a great deal about self-motivation and the discipline of studying.  My next three University qualifications were much easier as a result – and all of them were obtained through part-time and/or distance education.  I never went into debt for any of them.

Makes you think, doesn’t it?



  1. And that is just the tuition. The price of textbooks, adjusted for constant dollars, has also skyrocketed. I have gone to various printing trade shows where the "On-Demand" printing technologies can keep the prices of printed materials under control. But the textbook publishers are also drinking at the waterhole and are also complicit in the exploitation of college students.

  2. I did this analysis recently for my local state college since the better half is back in school. If I recall, the conclusion I came to was that a student (living at home) who wanted to pay for their schooling by working through the summer, would need to work the equivalent of a $33/hour job for 40/hours a week from the last day of classes until the first each semester. And that was just to pay for tuition and books and fees, never mind food, shelter or anything else.

  3. There are ways to get a degree from a good college without going into debt and working a full time job at the same time. CLEPing out of the fluff classes can save you 1/4-2/3 of your tuition. It's a method I used before I graduated in 2006, and while it is frowned upon in academic circles, my employer's never cared.

    A good article has been written about it here:


  4. And that's just to pay for school, what about living expenses? You should also consider that some programs (such as the nursing program I'm currently attending) are full-time. I went to school part-time and worked full-time for as many years as I could to complete my prerequisites and electives, but then I had to bite the bullet and go full-time. Now I'm looking at a student loan debt of about the cost of a mid-size sedan. I plan on paying it off within two years of graduation, and I SHALL. It can be done if one lives frugally.

  5. My oft-repeated advice — many people in the US of partly European descent have at least one ancestor from one of the current EU countries that will grant citizenship by descent.
    If you can get, say, a Polish passport, then if you get accepted to Edinburgh University in Scotland your tuition will be just over $3000 at current exchange rate. Your tuition at some universities in Finland/Scandinavia/Baltics would be $0. Typical bachelor programs are 3-years rather than 4+, and focus on your major only, rather than trying to cover a broad swathe of human knowledge rather shallowly.
    The majority business and technical programs in the northern EU outside of Germany/Austria are taught in English.

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