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.