I was raised by a single mother, and my family did not have the resources to pay for my college education. We didn’t consider ourselves poor; we just didn’t have much money. Like many of my baby boomer brethren, I worked my way through school. I graduated in 1970 with a small amount of student debt.
Today, 70% of students graduate from college burdened by student debt. Many have excessive levels of debt that will inhibit life choices like buying a home or starting a family for many years after graduation. There is about $1.6 trillion in outstanding student debt currently. That is more than credit card debt, auto loan debt, or any other kind of debt except home mortgages.
So why don’t members of the current generation of work their way through school like I and many of my colleagues did?
There are different situations for different students, but one fact is clear upon review; it is simply no longer possible. The math no longer supports such a supposition.
When I attended Indiana University, tuition was about $450 a semester and room and board was about $500 a semester, as I recall. That translates to about $1,900 a year. Add some miscellaneous expenses and I needed to earn $2,000 to $2,200 a year to pay for college.
I had a job at a local factory that paid me an average of $2.00 an hour. With some overtime, I could make $100 a week; over 20 weeks I made about $2,000 a year. At school, I waited tables and made expense money, so I was pretty self-sufficient.
The factory where I worked in Cicero, Illinois, closed long ago as did other nearby factories. Students today more likely find jobs at retail stores which often pay $10 to $15 an hour. Most stores offer part-time positions with less than forty hours of work per week to avoid needing to pay benefits. A student who does secure a forty hour a week job can expect gross income of $400 to $600 a week. Over twenty weeks, that translates to $8,000 to $12,000, which is considerably more than I earned at $2,000.
Unfortunately, college costs more too. My alma matter, Indiana University, calculates an entering freshman in-state student will need about $27,000 a year. Other public schools are similar, and many are more expensive. The University of Michigan indicates an entering freshman will need $31,000 a year. Ohio State University requires a total cost of about $28,000.
In my community of San Diego, the University of California San Diego estimates a total annual cost of $33,000 for in-state residents. Across town, California State University at San Diego is less expensive at about $30,000. And private schools and out-of-state tuition at public schools are much higher. If someone wants to attend the private University of San Diego with smaller class sizes, plan to spend about $71,000 a year.
Let’s return to the student with a part time job at the shoe store in the mall. He or she might make $10,000 from their work if they are fortunate to secure sufficient hours. That amount does not come close to paying the cost of college attendance.
There are options to reducing the gap between the cost of attending school and how much a student can earn. All schools have scholarships; if you’re a talented basketball player, for example, an athletic scholarship may be possible. If one is an exceptional student and leader, there are usually some funds available. And if someone is from a particularly poor family, better endowed schools will provide support. But when I went to school, my family was not impoverished, I was not very athletic, and while smart, I certainly wasn’t brilliant. I suspect most current students fall into a similar description.
The federal government and some state governments provide scholarship funds to students from families below certain income thresholds. The biggest program is Federal Pell Grants. These grants are designed to help close the affordability gap. The maximum grant, however, is just $6,495. It helps but does not close the gap for most students.
What does the college student do when confronted with an attendance cost of $25,000 to $30,000 and an income of $10,000? He or she seeks financial grants, but for most there will still be a considerable affordability gap. There are options including less expensive community college for a couple years, and there is borrowing money to go to school.
Within society, we can debate what to do about the rising levels of unsustainable student debt and the relative unaffordability of a college education, but we cannot pretend that the old methods, including rolling up ones sleeves and paying for college by waiting tables is realistic in 2021. We need systemic change to ensure that the students of today and the would-be leaders of tomorrow get a fair shot.