Not so many years ago it was possible to work a part-time or summer job and pay for a substantial amount of one’s college education; indeed, working one’s way through college was part of the high education experience for millions of Americans.
These days, not so much: “You can’t work your way through college anymore,” Richard West writes at The Wall Street Journal.
According to West, the cost of attending college has risen “at more than twice the rate of inflation for decades.” (One of the principal causes, according to West? “[T]he increasing availability of federal student loans.”)
West himself recalls waiting tables and making around $30 per week while attending Harvard in 1956. “I received a full scholarship,” West writes, “but even if it had ended, I recall that Yale’s ‘all in’ price—including tuition, room and board—was $1,800 a year. My work during the term could have covered one-sixth of that.”
That kind of ratio is generally not possible today, West says: “Today tuition, room and board at Yale run $66,900. Working the same amount as I did—even at, say, $12 an hour, an increase of roughly one-third after inflation—produces income of $3,600, or slightly more than 5% of the total.”
“To earn enough to pay for one-sixth of a Yale education would require an hourly wage of more than $37!” he points out.
The skyrocketing tuition at Yale, West writes, “tracks what has happened at virtually all of America’s elite private colleges and universities. The situation in public schools is little better:”
A half-century ago, the tuition and fees at many such institutions were barely above zero. Fully working your way through college was a real possibility. Now a year’s education at a typical state university, even for in-state students, can easily exceed $25,000, well beyond what can be earned while studying full-time. That is why so many students at public institutions are now leaving college, whether or not they graduate, with mountains of debt.
To reduce their need to borrow, increasing numbers of students are attending community colleges for their first two years while continuing to live at home. Admittedly this helps, although at the cost of greatly diminishing the college experience. But it doesn’t change the financial realities once these students then transfer to four-year institutions.
Meanwhile, some students decide to borrow more than they minimally require in lieu of working at all during the academic year, or as a means to accept a challenging but unpaid summer internship. Given how little of their education they can pay for by working after class, this decision can hardly be dismissed as frivolous or extravagant. But it still adds to the massive debt.
At Yale, undergraduates on scholarship have traditionally been required to provide what is known as “the student effort” by working about 10 hours a week during the academic year. A campus group called Students Unite Now is demanding that the university abandon this policy. The group’s leader says its objective is “to create a more equitable experience,” arguing that the work requirement is unfair to low-income students and students of color.
The university has not acceded to this demand, and Yale president Peter Salovey told the student newspaper last month that working was a “valuable part” of his own education. The article continued: “In an ideal world, Salovey added, he would want all Yale students to have work-study experience. But, he noted, no one is forced to work since students can take out loans.”
“The idea of working your way through college has become an anachronism, akin to pay telephones and black-and-white televisions—and the last two, of course, have been replaced by much better things,” West writes.
“Today massive student debt is the norm, sometimes in addition to a job on campus and work during the summer.”