Putting Oneself Through College

A lot has been written lately about the rising costs of higher education. Is it still possible to put oneself through college without working full time? It’s certainly not easy. For example, the Utah minimum wage is $7.25/hour. If a student works 20 hours per week for 50 weeks, the resulting $7,250 doesn’t even cover in-state tuition ($6,763) after taxes. To make things work, a student needs to work more hours, get paid more per hour, or offset costs using scholarships.

When I was in college in 1990 through 1995, it was not so difficult to put oneself through school and many of my friends did it. I supported myself through a combination of scholarships, part-time jobs (minimum wage at first; more once I got a programming job), and some support from my parents — a few hundred dollars here and there, if I recall correctly (but they also bought me a car and paid its insurance and registration). My total income was never larger than $7,000 per year and I never paid more than $150/month for rent — we’re talking basement apartments and three or four roommates. I didn’t take out any loans, though I did have a bit of credit card debt from time to time. When I started grad school, the $17,000/year stipend felt like a lot of money. But this was all some time ago. Since then, minimum wage has doubled but in-state tuition at Kansas State University — where I studied — has increased five-fold. Additionally, textbook costs have gotten out of control, the job market has taken a bad turn, and scholarship opportunities have been disappearing due to budget cuts.

Recently I asked about a dozen juniors and seniors in my department how they are paying for college. Nine people responded:

  • 6 students receive scholarships
  • 5 work part time
  • 4 get some support from parents
  • 3 get tuition reimbursement from an employer
  • 2 have used personal savings
  • 2 work full time
  • 2 are taking out loans

The interesting bits here are that most of these students work and surprisingly few are taking out loans. A bit of searching revealed that college students in Utah graduate with the lowest average debt ($15,500 in 2010) out of all 50 states. In contrast, the average graduate in New Hampshire has $31,000 in debt. This article explains:

States in the Northeast and Midwest are disproportionately represented among the “high debt” states, while those in the West are disproportionately represented among the “low debt” states. This may be related to the fact that a larger than average share of students in the Northeast and Midwest attend private nonprofit four-year colleges. In comparison, Western states have a larger share of students attending public four-year colleges.

I suppose this makes sense. Overall, it seems to still be possible to put oneself through college, but just barely — and it would be difficult or impossible to do so for students paying out-of-state (or private school) tuition or for students whose skills are less marketable than are those of the upper-level computer science students I surveyed. It is distressing that tuition costs have gone up so much during the recession. I’m sure the university administrators could tell me why it made sense to do this, but it’s not at all clear that it’s a long-term (or even medium-term) win for the university to price itself out of a significant chunk of the potential students — those who need to pay for school themselves, but who do not wish to graduate with a lot of debt.

6 thoughts on “Putting Oneself Through College”

  1. At the University of Waterloo, we had a co-op program where you would go to work full-time every 4 months. These were paid positions, and I think the average pay was around $15/hour. (I don’t think I ever made less than $17/hour.)

    This helped a lot. I have zero debt, and never had to work while studying. (Disclaimer: It probably also helped that I don’t drink, smoke or drive, and have inexpensive tastes. Although, as an engineering student, I did have one of the highest tuitions.)

  2. Actually, you could tweak your numbers. Most students I knew went fall and spring semesters, but didn’t take classes over the summer. That way they’d do school full time and work part time for 9 months out of the year, then work full time the other 3 months. Between working this way and grants/scholarships I was able to graduate with my BS debt free.

    I saw huge advantages to this approach. Working part time helped me be more focused at school & forced me to prioritize my time better.

    Most students should also recognize the advantages of getting a student job in the field they’re studying. They get experience, get paid, show a potential employer what they can do, and gain valuable contacts. Relevant jobs sure beat the heck out of a job in the retail or restaurant industry!

  3. “[P]ossible to put oneself through college, but just barely” struck me as ironically accurate for my case. I came out with exactly zero debt and would have run out of savings the week *after* I started work.

  4. Of course, your survey is from your department. People in technical fields are much more likely to be employed as undergrads – and much more likely to be paid well for it. I imagine people in the liberal or fine arts are much more likely to be in debt for school than students in your department.

  5. Yeah, summer jobs and internships can definitely change the equation. Plus, as Ben says, it’s a good idea anyway to have a job in one’s field.

    A lot of my motivation in college came from trying to make sure I never had to work a service sector job again, and a lot of my motivation in grad school came from seeing the kinds of jobs my college friends had ended up with.

  6. Here in the UK, state-sponsored university education costs are due to rise shortly, from ~£3,100 per annum to ~£9,000 per annum for a lot institutions.

    Over here, most people take on a student loan, which comes to about £6,000 per year, to cover tuition and living costs. These debts are underwritten by the government. Quite a few people supplement this with part-time jobs, but it can still be difficult, with our property market; a house for 4 people usually sets people back £60-£75 per week per person.

    It’s rare for people here to have a car when they’re students, due to the very high costs of fuel, insurance and road tax (even for a nackered old car).

    Even after graduating and getting a job, I’m still living in a house with students because it’s easier for rent purposes.

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