Higher Edge: Minimum effort for college affordability

October 23, 2014

“Back in my day, I worked my way through college.” That’s reasonable enough for our parents to say, when referring to a time when colleges didn’t expect students to live on campus, mandate meal plans, require astronomically expensive textbooks, encourage extracurricular involvement, promote unpaid internships, and foster social interaction. These developments have all become integral components of the contemporary college experience. For empirical evidence, spend a day on Georgetown’s campus.

Some college students worry about whether their investment will eventually pay off, and even more of them worry about how they will eventually pay off their investment. But in an age of high tuition costs and low minimum wages, an alarming number of students worry if they will even graduate at all. A recent chart from Attn draws attention to a factor often overlooked when discussing college graduation rates—the minimum wage.

The chart indicates that when considering a summer break of 13 or 14 weeks, students could pay a year’s worth of the average public university’s tuition from a minimum wage summer job up until around 1980. Today, it would take over a year of full-time, 40 hours-per-week minimum wage work to cover the current average price tag of public college tuition—not including books, housing, food, or other living expenses. Not to mention, most students nowadays spend their summers interning for no pay in some of the most expensive cities in the country—D.C., New York, San Francisco—doing the work of a paid entry-level staffer, if not their highly-paid superiors.

Here’s how this problem developed. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, in 1978, on average, a year’s tuition and fees at a four-year, in-state public university was was $688 in that year’s dollars—equal to working 260 hours at the 1978 minimum wage of $2.65, or fewer than seven full-time work weeks. Sure, there’s the caveat of using a national average and the fact that room and board brings the grand total to $2,145, but making $1,378 in one summer makes a significant dent. I’d have to make $23,100 in one summer to pay just half of Georgetown’s annual tuition, which is $22,100 more than I made in my first summer internship (before taxes). But let’s compare apples to apples: in 2011, the average comparable tuition was $7,701, equivalent to working 1,062 hours at the current $7.25 minimum wage— nearly 27 full-time work weeks.

So why don’t low-income students just work full-time year round on top of their schoolwork? Well, because the job candidate with years of experience working at a restaurant does not look nearly as impressive as the candidate with four semesters and three summers’ worth of internships (some, if not most, presumably unpaid) alongside multiple on-campus leadership roles that require a high level of time commitment. And that’s assuming both have similar GPAs, requiring a similar significant amount of time to devote to their studies.

The minimum wage has increased by 273 percent since 1978. The cost of a college degree has increased by 1,120 percent within the same time frame, but state funding toward colleges has been cut by 40 percent. Even textbook prices are joining the skyrocketing fun, with prices increasing by 812 percent. The conclusion: it’s impossible to afford college on one’s own with a minimum wage job. Therefore, the fact that only 59 percent of freshmen who started a four-year college in the fall of 2006 received a diploma within six years is sad, but certainly not surprising.

Fighting against the socioeconomic disadvantage unpaid internships cause students to deal with is one step toward leveling the playing field for college students, but it doesn’t stop there. Of the 3.55 million workers earning minimum wage in 2012, 50.6 percent were between the ages of 16 and 24 years old, and 20 percent were between the ages of 25 and 34 years old. The intertwined issue of high tuitions and low minimum wages, then, is one that follows economically struggling students long after they graduate. Students should never have to sacrifice their potential success by having to turn down a prestigious, yet unpaid internship to work a minimum wage job they are overqualified for. However, this reality is a constant presence on college campuses—and one that can be prevented by carefully evaluating how both college tuition costs and the federal minimum wage are addressed.


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