The Myth of Working Your Way Through College

Discussion in 'General Distance Learning Discussions' started by Messdiener, Apr 29, 2015.

  1. Messdiener

    Messdiener Active Member

    The Myth of Working Your Way Through College

    Once upon a time, a summer spent scooping ice cream could pay for a year of college. Today, the average student's annual tuition is equivalent to 991 hours behind the counter.

    A lot of Internet ink has been spilled over how lazy and entitled Millennials are, but when it comes to paying for a college education, work ethic isn't the limiting factor. The economic cards are stacked such that today’s average college student, without support from financial aid and family resources, would need to complete 48 hours of minimum-wage work a week to pay for his courses—a feat that would require superhuman endurance, or maybe a time machine.

    To take a close look at the tuition history of almost any institution of higher education in America is to confront an unfair reality: Each year’s crop of college seniors paid a little bit more than the class that graduated before. The tuition crunch never fails to provide new fodder for ongoing analysis of the myths and realities of The American Dream. Last week, a graduate student named Randy Olson listened to his grandfather extol the virtues of putting oneself through college without family support. But paying for college without family support is a totally different proposition these days, Olson thought. It may have been feasible 30 years ago, or even 15 years ago, but it's much harder now.

    More at The Myth of Working Your Way Through College - The Atlantic

    In the interest of avoiding copyright issues, check out the article at The Atlantic! It's the same old issue, but it was interesting to see the numbers again.

    Any thoughts?

  2. Neuhaus

    Neuhaus Well-Known Member

    In truth, I don't believe most people who claim to have "worked their way through college." Pre-WW2, College was largely a proposition for families who could afford it. I don't just mean tuition. I also mean families who didn't need their teenage children to go out and work to support the family (or work in a family business to take the place, or at least supplement, aging family members who had been working there for decades).

    The 1944 and Post-WW2 GI Bill put a lot of people through college in a way that modern vets can only envy. Unlike the Montgomery GI Bill, WW2 vets had living stipends while they pursued higher ed. Even a married vet could go back to school without having to "work his way through college."

    Keep in mind, a very significant portion of the male population was drafted and eligible for SOME form of veteran benefit.

    There were certainly schools that targeted working adults (Franklin University would be a good example), the children of working class parents (Kings College would be a good example) and other underrepresented groups in the higher ed world (historically African-American colleges, for example). But the idea that tuition was so cheap that a person could work a part-time job at minimum wage and afford both tuition and living expenses is completely unrealistic.

    The WW2 era GI Bill created many waves of professionals (many of whom had working class origins) without debt. There were also drafts in Korea and Vietnam, sending even more of America's youth into the workforce without (or with very low) debt. Couple this with the fact that Title IV became law in 1965.

    So you had a huge infusion into higher ed with WW2 vets and Korean vets and Vietnam vets going to school with the tab, largely, being picked up by the Department of Veterans Affairs. Then you had Pell Grants being introduced at the same time another major infusion of youth were being given access to veteran benefits.

    To me, this means that the idea that any living person "paid their way" through school without ANY form of assistance is very unlikely. Even more unlikely is the notion that "a summer spent scooping ice cream" paid for a year of college. The minimum wage in 1980 was $3.25. So a 40 hour work week would result in gross pay of $130 or roughly $520 per month. If we consider a three month summer, that's $1,560 BEFORE tax. Thanks to my friend, Mr. Google, I can see that the average tuition at a state school in 1980 was $9,500.

    If you worked every summer, your total earnings would be $6,240. First, Uncle Sam would take a big bite out of that. Then you would have to not spend a single cent of it on anything other than college. But if you were simply the most frugal ice cream scooper and you somehow how got it all tax free, you still fell short of paying your tuition bill by $3,260 which would be AT LEAST two more summers worth of work.

    So no, I don't think anyone is "working their way through college" in the sense that they are footing their entire tuition bill with a part-time, minimum wage job. And I also don't think that anyone ever did. I think that there are a lot of people, like me, who went to college and took full advantage of financial aid and student loans and still had to pay part of their tuition because private student loans were either not available or inadvisable.
    For a lot of people, that delta is paid by their parents. For others, it is scooped up into private student loans. For still others, it is the amount that they plod through on payment plans in a near futile attempt to graduate with "less debt."

    But a huge problem, as I see it, is that people have unrealistic memories such as this. Scooping ice cream part-time never paid your entire tuition bill. It just didn't. That may be the memory of countless adults who were blissfully unaware about how Title IV funds were subsidizing their education but that doesn't make it accurate. I was "pretty sure" that I was paying for my own car insurance in high school with my part-time job at McDonalds. I went for nearly a decade with that myth embedded in my mind until my father set me straight. My contributions were intended to teach me responsibility (financial and otherwise) but they put hardly a dent in the insurance bill compounded by a teenage driver on my parents' policy.

    This is a problem because it ignores the role the government played in education before. Higher ed had to get by on a combination of tuition and endowment money. Then nearly 1/3 of men in the US showed up with the federal government willing to pay the full bill (and pay their living expenses along the way). Then the government decided it would kick some money toward EVERYONE'S tuition. Tuition isn't bloated right now because of kids scooping ice cream. It's bloated because, since 1945, colleges and universities have been able to rely on large sums of money from the federal government.

    An economics professor I had once said it best:

    If, every year, the U.S. Government gave everyone in the United States a $100 gift certificate for Olive Garden (and it cannot be redeemed for cash and must be used during the calender year, or else it is forfeit) it would be amazing for the first few years. Their business would be booming. My wife and I would get at least four free dinners per year (assuming we spend $50 on a couples dinner). They would likely expand to meet all of the demand. There would likely be a huge peak in December as people scrambled to "use or lose" their gift certificate.

    How long would it be before the price increased? If the average cost of a meal at the Olive Garden rose to $125, we would all still go. Otherwise we'd be leaving money on the table by not using our gift certificate. Why would they increase the price? Because Olive Garden would know that they could count on X number of dollars from the federal government. Raising the price just adds to their bottom line. Under the old prices, I could get four meals free. Under the new price structure, I would get one heavily subsidized meal where I had to kick in an extra $25 to cover the bill. The choice for Olive Garden is simple: Collect $100 and provide four meals or collect $125 and provide one meal.

    Colleges are making the obvious choice.
    Last edited by a moderator: Apr 29, 2015
  3. Kizmet

    Kizmet Moderator

    I worked my way through college, from beginning to end. Sometimes I worked part-time and went to school full-time and at other times I worked full-time and attended classes part-time. Once, for a semester I think, I both worked and went to school full-time. That was no fun at all. I had my own tiny studio apartment in Jamaica Plain and had no social life because I had no money for such things. Throughout the whole time I was taking out student loans. Even working full-time I couldn't pay my way through life as well as school without those loans. I'm not sure where I'd be without government student loans. In the end I paid them off by rolling them into a refi mortgage and then selling the house for a profit.
  4. FJD

    FJD Member

    I worked my way through undergraduate school. It wasn't easy, but I had three things going for me: one, discounted in-state tuition, two, a job where I was earning enough money to live and pay tuition bills, and three, work hours that let me attend class on campus during the day and otherwise schedule classes around my work schedule. I had some rough days, often getting off work at 2:30am and having to be to class in the morning, but I had youth on my side and the off-hours lifestyle did not really bother me.

    Now, this was about 15-20 years ago, and I know tuition at my school as more than doubled since I was there. I wouldn't want to try to work through school in the traditional sense these days. With online learning, you really don't have to. I wish it was around for me back then. My life would have been a ton easier. Still, I earned a degree from a very good school for a great price, and paid mostly cash.
  5. Mark A. Sykes

    Mark A. Sykes Member

    Did it in the time frame 1996-2005. No employer money. But, I also took CLEP and challenge exams.
  6. GoodYellowDogs

    GoodYellowDogs New Member

    I worked my way through college - my VN certificate, my AS, and my BS. It can be done. However, if you want to go for the big name schools, not use a community college, etc., then you might have to take out loans. It's a CHOICE. I don't think I should have to pay (loan forgiveness, etc.) for someone else's choice.
  7. Neuhaus

    Neuhaus Well-Known Member

    I don't really buy into all of these "the school deceived me" cries, personally.

    Fun story, so a local college when I was in high school was boasting some decent employability numbers at an open house I was attending. They said that their average business graduate was making $42,000 within a year of graduation. Not a terrible starting salary. Still, I thought it was a little weird at the time. This was a small, Catholic liberal arts college at least two hours from any major city. And our area had a ton of colleges and most of the jobs were blue collar. So I couldn't figure out what all of these BSBA grads were doing for such a salary. Didn't feel right. I ended up going to UofS instead because I liked their Psych program.

    Years later I ran into a high school friend who ended up attending that college. She told me that when she couldn't get a job after graduation the school hired her, as well as a chunk of her classmates, for low level administrative work. They may decent wages (usually high 30's). But they were all temp jobs that lasted 1-2 years. So it sounds to me like they were cooking their numbers.

    Moral of the story: Know what you need to achieve a goal and do what you need to do to get there. If you can't see through a sales pitch, no degree is going to protect you from life.
  8. Graves

    Graves Member

    I was given a full ride scholarship to help me with junior college. That saved me about 16 grand. My bachelor's from Excelsior is a combination of an Associate of Arts, exams for credit, and free electives granted to me from my job. I used tuition assistance for some of my master's (75 percent of the first four courses), but I paid for most of it. I used money accumulated from deployments to essentially break even. I also have two A.A.S. degrees from my current job as well.

    I don't have a lot of money saved (minus a recent gambling win), but I'm thankful that I don't have any student debt. But I know some employers may question how I earned my degrees.
  9. RAM PhD

    RAM PhD Member

    It isn't a myth for everyone. I began college at age 27, married and with a seven year old child (I married at age 18), worked my way through a BA, an MA, a professional doctorate, then a research masters and a research PhD. During the entire academic journey I worked a full-time job. I received a Pell grant for one year of the undergrad degree, and a scholarship for 13 hours of the first masters. Everything else (tuition, books, travel, lodging, etc.) was paid for out of pocket--my own pocket. No family assistance. No vocational reimbursement.
  10. Neuhaus

    Neuhaus Well-Known Member

    Right, but there's a pretty big difference between working a full-time job which, presumably, enabled you to support a family and claiming to have "paid your way through college" with a summer job. I have no doubt that people paid a portion of their education this way. But I do not believe, largely due to the mathematic impossibility of such a feat, that anyone paid their full tuition and books without any scholarship money or financial aid using just their minimum wage summer job.

    If I go back to school for another Masters it will be out of pocket. No debt. I set up a 529 just to set aside some money for additional educational expenses for my wife and I. But again, neither of us are scooping ice cream to pay for additional education. Adult learners fall into a completely different category than full-time residential undergrads.
  11. Ted Heiks

    Ted Heiks Moderator and Distinguished Senior Member

    AS in Vocational Nursing from Mesa College? Is that Mesa College in Grand Junctioon, Colorado, now known as Colorado Mesa University?
  12. jhp

    jhp Member

    I am going through college now (75 credits out of 120), and have received $0 grants, loans, scholarships or other. I am paying full tuition while working full-time.
  13. cookderosa

    cookderosa Resident Chef

    I think there is some mixing of assumptions. The traditional student is 18ish with no real skill set. Obviously an adult with a career different.
  14. SurfDoctor

    SurfDoctor Moderator

    You are a hero and more students should emulate you. I'll bet it is excruciating.
  15. GoodYellowDogs

    GoodYellowDogs New Member

    No, Mesa College in San Diego :)
  16. GoodYellowDogs

    GoodYellowDogs New Member

    Yes, true. However, when I started I was 18, when I finished I was 58. I started and stopped as I had the time and money. I did the 2 years for my VN while working fulltime as a nurse's aid in the hospital when I was young. Nursing school started at 6:45 a.m. and went until 2:30 p.m., then I went to the hospital and worked from 3 p.m. until 11:30 p.m. I did that for a full two years including summers - so that I didn't incur debt. Then I worked and went to school off and on to finish my BS without debt. I'm not saying it's a perfect, but I didn't incur debt.

    Honestly I'm a little tired of student incurring 100K in debt and then thinking they should get a bailout. They signed for the debt, they owe the debt.

    Yes, I'm old and cranky.
  17. warguns

    warguns Member

    Tuition at California community colleges is $46 a unit. I could make that collecting aluminum can.
  18. JustAnotherPoorSlo

    JustAnotherPoorSlo New Member

    It was $10 a credit in 2001--$300 a year. Spent more on tools than tuition for my vocational program.

    I think Neuhaus is directionally correct--it was a rare (but not non-existent) student who could work a minimum wage job and fully pay for college and living expenses--almost everyone either took loans, got government or private help, live with family and/or worked a more remunerative position than a minimum wage job.

    I do want to correct a few of Neuhaus' numbers, however.

    First, average State school tuition was $2,100 in 1980. The $9,500 figure is private school tuition. We could quible about whether attending a state school is "government aid", but it certainly

    Second, I think assuming a minimum wage job only 40 hours a week (as Neuhaus and I think the Atlantic do) is somewhat unrealistic. Most of the student I know work much more than 40 hours a week during the summer and/or work in the service professions where the potential to make more due to tips is present. Most of them also work part-time during the year to supplement the money saved during the three months of summer work.

    Finally, if they are actually making $1,500 per year, they aren't paying much tax. As a matter of fact, they may be entitled to some refundable tax credits (at which point they are no longer a student who paid for college "without government help")

    Source for the cost of college in 1980: Average Tuition & Fees, by Institution Type, 1980-81 to 2010-11 | Demos
  19. jhp

    jhp Member

    For some reason, when I read your last paragraph... I read halibut, not bailout. I would be perfectly okay with giving a fair sized halibut to graduating students.

  20. gbrogan

    gbrogan Member

    I live in NYC which is extremely expensive and have a handful of friends who worked in retail stores, lived at home, saved up and paid for a semester at a time at CUNY schools which is now about $3k, books and living expenses (they worked part time while in school) and made do. It took them 5-6 years to graduate but they did it with no debt.

    So it's not a myth. If you want something badly enough, you find a way to do it. If you have to go part time and pay as you go while working, keep plugging on and eventually you'll finish. Take an online class at an RA school and bank the credits while working. The issue is that people want what they want when they want it.

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