COSTS DOWN, WAGES UP: CAN YOU ‘WORK YOUR WAY’ THROUGH COLLEGE? By Elizabeth Renter For the past few years, the out-of-pocket costs for attending a public four-year college have decreased and minimum wages have risen in many states. While you might think these shifts should make it easier for students to work their way through college, it would still take a herculean effort – adding a full-time job (or more) – to a full-time courseload. Assuming a student earns the average of state minimum wages ($10.40 per hour), they’d need to work 35 hours per week to cover the average costs at a public four-year school in their state. And that wouldn’t account for additional expenses, such as gas and car insurance, recreational activities or any unexpected costs. It also wouldn’t leave much room for the estimated 30-45 hours per week they’d need to dedicate to their full-time courseload. Wages and inflation affect working student outcomes The net cost of attendance – which includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and an allowance for personal expenses, minus grant aid – has been declining for the past six years, reaching $19,250 in the 2022-2023 school year for in-state students at public, four-year institutions, according to data from the College Board. Inflation has played a role in this real decline: The cost of higher education hasn’t grown as quickly as the overall inflation rate. Rising state minimum wages are further improving affordability. Over the past two years, 24 states have increased their minimum wages, and college students are more likely to work in low-wage jobs. As minimum wages increase, workers in low-paying jobs making more than the minimum generally get raises too — employers are likely to increase other wages to keep them roughly proportionate. But not every locale is benefiting from such increases. Twenty states either don’t have a minimum wage or have it set to match the federal minimum wage: $7.25 per hour. At that rate, a student would need to work 51 hours a week to pay the cost of attendance.
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