How Much College Students Need to Work to ‘Get By’

Here’s why it’s difficult, if not darn near impossible, for college students to work their way through school these days.

During my college years, I worked at least two jobs every summer. My paychecks covered all my bills and helped me save up for school. I didn’t earn nearly enough to pay all of my college costs, but my summer paychecks definitely made a dent in my school bill.

College students who worked during their summer breaks in the late 1970s and early 1980s had it better than me (I attended college from 1997-2001) and much better than college students today.

According to NPR, it cost about $2,870 total to attend college in 1981-1982 — that includes tuition, fees, and room and board. Hypothetically, a working-class student back then with no monetary help from their folks could snag a Pell Grant from the federal government for $1,800, leaving the student with $1,000 in school costs to cover. Says NPR:

Now, $3.35 an hour was the minimum wage back then. So, making $2,870 meant working 842 hours. That’s 16 hours a week year-round — a decent part-time job. It’s also about nine hours a day for three straight months — a full-time, seven-day-a-week summer job. Or, more likely, a combination of both. In short: Not impossible. Far from it.

These days, you’re still likely to see college students working over their summer break, but their paychecks fall far short of being able to cover their college expenses. According to NPR, the average cost of college (at a four-year public university) for the 2015-2016 school year was $19,548. With Pell Grant awards topping out at $5,775, that leaves a student with a $13,773 bill.

So how much would a student need to work to cover the remaining college costs? The answer is alarming. Says NPR:

A student would now have to work 37 hours a week, every week of the year, at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, to get by. Research shows that when college students work more than 20 hours a week their studies suffer. If they’re working full time, many will take longer to finish and end up paying even more.

To cover today’s costs with a low-skilled summer job? Over 90 days, a student would need to work 21.1 hours a day.

Put in that perspective, it’s a lot easier to understand why so many students are relying on student loans to help them pay for a significant chunk of their college expenses.

College doesn’t have to break the bank. Check out “5 Ways to Dramatically Reduce the Cost of College.”

Are you surprised to see how many hours a college student needs to work just to get by? Share your comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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