It’s impossible to work your way through college nowadays, revisited with national data

Last weekend, I wrote a brief rant about how it’s far more difficult to work your way through college nowadays than 30 years ago. Some folks took it for a scientific study rather than the rant it was, and criticized it for only looking at Michigan State University’s tuition trends. In response, I decided to run a proper analysis of national public university tuition data.

With the help of some of my awesome Twitter followers, I managed to find a comprehensive data set of the in-state tuition costs for all public 4-year universities in the U.S. from 1987 through 2010. Combining that data with the Federal minimum wage trends from before, we get the chart below showing the number of hours a student would have to work on minimum wage to pay for 1 year of public university tuition in the U.S.

To save you the data wrangling, I’ll provide the data set here.

Hours worked on minimum wage to pay for 1 year of public university tuition in the U.S.

Hours worked on minimum wage to pay for 1 year of public university tuition in the U.S.

We immediately see a trend similar to before, but the data is limited between 1987 and 2010. What about the 1979 and 2013 students, as we previously looked at?

To get a better sense of the trend, I fit a linear regression to the data. According to the model, students have to work 23.7 extra hours every year to pay for tuition. If we extrapolate this trend back to 1979 and forward to 2013, we recover the same trend that I found in my previous post: The average university student in 1979 only had to work 182 hours per year (a part-time summer job) to pay for tuition, whereas the average 2013 student had to work 991 hours (a full-time job for half the year). That’s over 5x as many hours worked for the same education!

I should point out that I’m only considering tuition & fees in this analysis, and I’ve completely left out room & board, book costs, gas & car repair, and other miscellaneous expenses that build up when students are in college. Given the widespread reports that wages aren’t keeping pace with inflation, this plot would only look even more dismal if I factored those costs in as well.

Other commenters were eager to point out that I left out financial aid from this analysis. If the Federal aid trends in the past 30 years are any indication, students actually have less of their tuition costs paid for by financial aid nowadays than 30 years ago! With rising costs and lowered financial support, it’s no wonder that student debt has spiraled out of control in the past decade. The system is practically setting the modern university student up for financial failure.

In summary, I’d like folks to stop toting their college financial success stories as an excuse for the insane costs of tuition nowadays — you’re the exception, not the rule.

Randy is a PhD candidate in Michigan State University's Computer Science program. As a member of Dr. Chris Adami's research lab, he studies biologically-inspired artificial intelligence and evolutionary processes.

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  • steveko

    Extrapolating 8 years backward from 1987 using a linear regression – are you sure that’s valid? Another 8 years backward from there (1971) would yield 0 hours worked to pay for a full year. Keep going back and they’re paying you to study…

    • http://www.randalolson.com Randy Olson

      It is indeed precarious to extrapolate outside of the bounds of the data with any linear regression. Of course if we had the data going all the way back to 1900, we would likely eventually see a plateau, i.e., the y-axis wouldn’t go to 0. What makes the extrapolation seemingly valid for the time period is that it matches the findings from my previous blog post that looked at the time range between 1979 and 2013. So I’m fairly confident that the linear regression accurately represents the trend over the 1979-2013 time range.

    • pridkett

      > Another 8 years backward from there (1971) would yield 0 hours worked to pay for a full year.

      That would actually be correct. The University of California system was (mostly) tuition free until 1971-72.

      Of course, that’s a coincidence. Extrapolation beyond the bounds is dangerous, but it’s just interesting that it works out here.

  • drew

    Rather than minimum wage, it might be useful to look at HS education only median incomes.
    http://www.infoplease.com/ipa/A0883617.html

    The problem with min wage is that it is not indexed to inflation, and States will often set higher limits. Currently only a tiny fraction of US work force earns federal minimum wage. The US economic growth since the law was passed combined with inflation has made that floor nearly irrelevant.
    When I was a HS student working labor, I made a lot more then min wage.

    • http://www.randalolson.com Randy Olson

      Indeed, but from reports I’ve been seeing for the past week it appears pretty typical that students don’t make much more than minimum wage (maybe $10/hr max?). So quantitatively, my analysis isn’t far from the truth. Qualitatively, it’s spot on: It’s way harder to work your way through college than it used to be.

      • Paul

        The other major flaw here is tht your data doesn’t fit the sensationalist conclusion you put in the title. The data says you currently need to work 900 hours/year in order to pay for college. With roughly 600 working hours during the 4-month summer break, that leave about 8 hours/week during the term to work to cover tuition. Not that difficult.

        (Not that I don’t agree with the overall sentiment, and of course cost of living and aid should be factored in too)

        • Shaka Sickels

          Of course then there’s housing, food, transportation, and 200$ textbooks.

        • Kate

          a) 991 ≠ 900
          b) Summer breaks are 3-3.5 months and standard summer positions are 350-480 hours.
          c) Tuition *far* underestimates the total cost of attendance.

          Let’s agree that the theoretical case you offered isn’t the real case.

    • http://lissertating.wordpress.com juilletmercredi

      HS education only median incomes usually includes people with on-the-job training in skilled or semi-skilled operations, like union bus drivers, construction workers, medical assistants, etc. College students aren’t getting those kinds of jobs – they’re typically working fast food, retail, maybe clerical work and they’re not making much more than minimum wage. When I was a college student in 2004 I worked part-time at an office on campus and I made $6/hour (federal minimum wage at the time was $5.15/hour) and that wasn’t work-study.

  • Adina

    Another data point for you: Michigan State University’s instate tuition in 1963 (when my mother started there) was $108 per trimester, or $324 a year (my source consists of “Hey, mom?”). Minimum wage was $1.25 (though she says on-campus work study wages were lower) so 259.2 hours were required in 1963. So clearly the linear trend doesn’t continue back as far as 1963, and unless it took a jump back down, not to 1979 either. Presumably the number of hours required in 1979 was between 259 and ~400, the 1963 and 1987 numbers respectively. That’s still well within the range of a summer job–if you could find one.

    My mother was one of those who worked her way through college. Even in 1986 she didn’t consider it possible for her children.

  • Luke Denfield

    Too bad everyone seems concerned about the quality of the data, extrapolation methods etc. instead of recognizing the message that the American dream is dead due to greedy colleges, the ridiculous spending on the military and, frankly, the stupidity of youngsters these days, who insist on discussing data quality issues, when the bigger picture eludes them.

    • http://gravatar.com/emiller42 Eric Miller

      Actually, it’s not greedy colleges. I’ll have to go back and find the data, but cost per student for tuition at state universities has pretty much tracked with inflation. The problem is that the amount of government funding going to those institutions hasn’t kept up, so students today pay a higher portion of the total cost than they did in the past. The end result is the same: higher tuition costs. But the root cause is vastly different from public perception.

      Now, private universities are a whole other story.

    • Kennon Gilson

      Nonsense. Harvard is free. See my comment above.

  • Chris McDaniel

    So I took your 991 hrs/ yr number to look at the benefit I got from the GI Bill. Though I just held steady at 991, at didn’t account for the fact I got my undergrad 2010-2012.
    I figured a 4-year degree would take about 1.97 working years to pay for– that’s ((991*4)/8)/251.

    Again, that excludes the additional expenses, as you stated. But, I think it shows that after 1993 (the last year you say you could semi-afford to work your way through school) the military’s college benefit has actually increased it’s benefits for people that otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford college.

  • http://gravatar.com/marneydavide marneydavide

    The point about financial aid is not how much it does (or doesn’t) cover expenses, it’s about the effect aid has had on prices. Let’s say that college costs have increased 5 times since 1980. How hard would it have been to get a student loan to cover that amount back in 1980 vs. today? My hypothesis is that easy credit is strongly correlated with higher prices, especially over time. We probably can’t tell which is chasing which (is aid chasing price increases, or are price increases chasing easy credit?).

    In any event, the fact that prices are 5 times higher now makes it even more important to get a job to cover your expenses during the off-season, or, even better, decrease the amount of time you spend in school, so you can get to a higher-paying job faster.

    • http://www.josejrvazquez.com Jose “JR” Vazquez

      In educational administrative circles, many tie the increase in college costs with the portability of financial aid sources which were previously offered only by the college. The GI Bill had a huge impact in college growth rates because schools began to compete for that “portable” aid which could follow the student.

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  • Giovanni Heward

    “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t–you’re right.” –Henry Ford

    • http://www.josejrvazquez.com Jose “JR” Vazquez

      @Giovanni – Ford had a nice notion, with regard to the motivation to create and build something great. However, some things are highly unlikely or impossible. It is not unreasonable to be aware of a persons limitations. For example, I will not be sprouting wings and flying anytime soon, as much as I would like to. I also will not be getting into NASA as a payload specialist given my background.

      Subtly disputing the validity or relevance of what Randal has shown by quoting Henry Ford, is an attempt to place the onus of failure on a supposed flaw in a persons character as opposed to economic realities.

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  • mc

    Supply & demand: If you are willing to finance college at any price, so long as it is pushed into some foggy hope of “future earnings”, there will be *no* real, comprehensive economic forces in play to force correction of reckless spending for an over-priced & over-sold product. Just look at the 2008 housing bubble, a new car lot, our our National Debt clock; Same blindness.

  • Kennon Gilson

    Meh. My state college tuition is payable is 300 hours, 5 weeks at 60 hrs. in the summer at the local supermarket and pizza joint.

    The interesting fact is that like many its endowment is such that it doesn’t want high-GPA students working but volunteering to develop service-learning abilities, or taking enrichment courses or seminars with other groups. So the scholarships I get cover tuition and more besides (like you I also got Bright Futures). I spent my last summer working for Habitat and taking workshops in Colorado and Georgia.
    Select a well-respected but low-tuition college and get those A’s.

    • SeanKurth

      As he said, the exception not the rule. Most supermarkets are not as nice as your’s. In the majority of the country, including my county, the only jobs a non-graduate can get are Walmart and Mcdonald’s, which drove out all the local businesses that actually paid well decades before I was born. Yes, there are other national fast food, gas station, and big box chains, but they don’t pay any better.

      60 hours per week? At most places you’re lucky to get 20. In most of the country, a job like yours would have 100 applicants per position, most of them WITH degrees, so someone trying to pay for college doesn’t have a chance. And “wage premiums?” NOBODY does that. Seriously, what city is this, maybe I’ll move there if I can scrape together the gas money.

      Oh, and there is NO SUCH THING a a well-respected but low-tuition college. Yes, there are low-tuition colleges. And the web design firm I used to work at threw away the resume of anyone who mentioned Florida, Georgia, Louisiana, Alabama, and either Dakota. Yes, its illegal to throw away resumes, but they use “staffing agencies” which are actually wholly owned shell companies to get around labor laws. This practice is almost universal in the fortune 500, there are whole swaths of the country whose colleges are blacklisted, and some companies will cut off the entire southeast. Basically, if your tuition was less than $30,000 per year, good luck.

      You either succeeded because you were born in the right county, or will fail because you’re unknowingly going to a crap college and are naive about a job market that clings tightly to southern stereotypes and will write off anyone who didn’t go to college in the northeast, rust belt, or California. To borrow a phrase, you didn’t build that.

  • Dn

    I wish they stated what they used for their tuition base because it
    varies so much. At minimum wage working 991hrs at $8 hour is barely $8k,
    which wouldn’t even cover the full cost of living and attending a year
    of my local community college. Now take out all of your work taxes…. Most get aid, but when other
    colleges cost $40k or more a year, it really is impossible to work
    through that. So in reality it is most likely even higher than 5x’s.
    Minimum wage is different all over and so is tuition.

  • Yang Yang Li

    Thank you author for fixing the numbers and arriving at such a great conclusion. The American people really need to understand that college has been commoditized by the middle class. I strongly condemn the universities for driving up tuition. I condemn the service industry for requiring B.S. degrees for manual labor. I condemn the government for creating the lucrative student debt market. I abhor the lie that college degrees are necessary for success.

    BUT MOST OF ALL, I hate myself because I live with the guilt of contributing to the college abomination. Everyday I wake up and feel powerless to stop my progress towards a degree.

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The data visualizations on this blog are the result of my “data tinkering” hobby, where I tackle a new data analysis problem every week. If I find something interesting, I report my findings here to share with the world.

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