“Working My Way Through College” Ain’t What It Used to Be


Whenever I write about the dangers of growing student loan debt or the need to keep student interest rates low, I can usually count on someone showing up in comments to extol their personal story of working their way through college. Unfortunately, despite such stories’ alignment with American ideals of rugged individualism or Horatio Alger style success-from-hard-work, they’re becoming harder and harder to practically achieve.

The Atlantic has a terrific explanation of why this is (including some helpful graphs, for all you graph-o-philes out there). Based on their analysis, employment of full-time college students hit a high of 52% in 2000. It’s been on the decline ever since, and the current recession has accelerated the fall. While part-time students enjoy a higher rate of employment, as they always have, they have also seen a drop-off in employment since the recession hit.

The point here is that the jobs just aren’t there for all the students who want to take advantage of them. What’s more, even if those jobs were available, they still wouldn’t be enough to help students stave off increases in debt. As we’ve written about before, part of the increase in student loan debt in Minnesota is a result of tuition increases triggered by declines in state investment. When tuition increases faster than wages do, fewer and fewer students will be able to make the math work out.

Of course hard work is admirable, and we expect individuals to take responsibility for their choices and actions. Sometimes, however, reality doesn’t allow people to do what they “should.” In times like those – times like these – folks are left only with what they can do. This is exactly the time for the state to find ways to lower tuition, not slash budgets and watch more students get priced out of college.