As of December 2020, the total amount of student loan debt Americans owed topped $1.7 trillion. This staggering figure looms large over the debate about whether the federal government should forgive student loans, and how to make college more affordable for future generations.

One of the chief advocates of student loan forgiveness, Senator Elizabeth Warren, frequently speaks about how she was able to pay for her degree from a public university in 1970 by working part-time.

Fast-forward 50 years. Decades of stagnant wages and increasing tuition prices mean the math doesn’t add up for current college students the way it did for Warren’s generation. Hard-working students who plan to fund their education through summer and part-time jobs instead of loans often find that it’s simply not possible, as a recent study from demonstrates.

Cost of college: 1970 vs. 2020

When debating how and if it’s possible for current students to work their way through college, it’s essential to recognize how much the cost of tuition has increased since the 1970s.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, for the 1970-71 academic year, the average in-state tuition and fees for one year at a public non-profit university was $394. By the 2020-21 academic year, that amount jumped to $10,560, an increase of 2,580%.

During the same period, tuition and fees at private institutions jumped by a similarly astronomical 2,107%, from $1,706 in 1970, to $37,650 in 2020. Between 1970 and 2020, the dollar had an average inflation rate of 3.87% annually, resulting in a cumulative price increase of about 567% during the last 50 years.

The trouble is, the rise in income—particularly minimum wage—hasn’t even come close to keeping pace with the increase in college tuition.

Between 1970 and 2020, the federal minimum wage rose from $1.60 per hour to $7.25 per hour, representing a more modest increase of 353%.

To afford tuition in 2020, public university students must work 6x as many hours as students in 1970

Let’s say you’re a college student working a minimum-wage job for the summer. Would you be able to earn enough money to pay your in-state tuition at a public university for the coming academic year?

Assuming a summer break is 12 weeks long, and you work 40 hours every week, that’s 480 hours total.

In 1970, at a rate of $1.60 per hour, you’d be able to earn $748 (pre-tax), which is nearly double your tuition of $394 for the year. You also wouldn’t have to work at all during the academic year, since there would be money left over after paying tuition.

Twenty-five years later, in 1995, working the same amount of hours for the then-minimum wage of $4.25 per hour, you’d earn $2,040 pre-tax. This is nearly enough to cover one year’s tuition. By working roughly 5 hours per week the rest of the year, you could cover all $2,848 of your annual tuition.

Fast-forward to 2020. If you’re working a full-time summer job for the federal minimum wage of $7.25, you’ll only earn $3,480 pre-tax, which covers less than half of one year’s tuition at a public university. In order to make up the difference, you must work 24 hours per week the rest of the year.

The trouble is, working this many hours per week while attending college is not advisable, according to Managing Editor Kristen Scatton.

“Most education experts recommend that students carrying a full-time courseload only work a maximum of 20 hours per week,” she says. “Plus, these numbers don’t account for housing, books, transportation and other costs. In reality, to cover all their expenses, students have to work more than 24 hours per week.”

Working through private school even harder

When we apply these same calculations to private schools, it becomes clear affording tuition on a minimum-wage job is out of the question.

In 1970, students working at a minimum-wage job could afford private-school tuition if they worked full-time over the summer, and an average of 15 hours per week the rest of the year.

However, in 2021, in order to afford average private-school tuition by working a minimum-wage job, a student would have to work 100 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.

To pay tuition in some states, 40+ hour work week required

While the federal minimum wage has remained at $7.25 per hour since 2009, 29 states have minimum wages that exceed the federal rate, therefore making it slightly easier to earn the necessary money to fund a college education.

For example, Florida has a low average annual tuition of $4,576. The state’s minimum wage is $8.65, which is slightly above the federal minimum wage. Therefore, by working an average of 11 hours per week, a Florida resident may be able to cover their tuition and fees with a minimum wage job.

At $13.69 an hour, Washington state’s minimum wage is one of the highest in the nation. In-state public university tuition averages $7,247 per year, meaning that by working an average of 10 hours per week, students in the Evergreen State can cover their tuition and fees for one year of school.

However, on the other end of the spectrum is New Hampshire, where the minimum wage is still $7.25. The state also has one of the highest average in-state tuition rates of $16,819. Given this, New Hampshire students would have to work 45 hours per week in order to afford just tuition and fees for one year.

“The reality is, in 2021, even if a student earns enough money to pay for their own college tuition, it’s almost impossible to get a bachelor’s degree without relying on some type of financial assistance,” Scatton says. “It’s not just about covering tuition – there are plenty of other costs like books, housing, food, and transportation that accumulate quickly.”

Scatton points out that some students may earn scholarships, or can turn to family support to ease financial burdens. “However, for millions of students, the only option for filling the financial gap is taking on student loans,” she says. “So it’s not surprising that we’ve reached a point where 43 million Americans have student loan debt. In our current system, there are very few other options.”


The data in this report derives from the following sources:

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