During the summers between his years at Cornell University, my father worked at a hotel in the Catskills called The Concord. The work was not glamorous—no “Dirty Dancing” stories so far as I can tell. He spent his time waiting on the waitstaff. But in the early 1960s, it was enough to pay for his Ivy League education. My grandfather sold ladies’ coats and my grandmother was a secretary so my father’s contribution was a significant one when it came to those college bills.
Obviously, this is no longer possible. A couple of weeks ago, a graduate student at Michigan State University ran the numbers and concluded, “It’s impossible to work your way through college nowadays.”
He says that “[m]odern students have to work as much as 6 [times] longer to pay for college than 30 years ago” and offers the graph to show it (based on data for Michigan State).
The 1979 student would have to work about 10 weeks at a part-time job (~203 hours) — basically, they could pay for tuition just by working part-time over the Summer. In contrast, the 2013 student would have to work for 35 ½ weeks (~1420 hours) — over half the year — at a full-time job to pay for the same number of credit hours. If you’ve ever attended college full-time, you know that this is basically impossible.
(He found similar results using data for all public four-year colleges.)
The Atlantic picked up on this analysis, and rightly asked, “Is it any surprise that so many students today are suckered into taking out non-dischargeable loans, in growing chunks, to pay for their bachelor's degrees?”
I think the results here are not simply evidence that college students can’t afford college. It’s that there’s absolutely no way they can afford college. Tuition costs are like some kind of funny number . . . almost impossible to conceive. Plenty of parents probably realize that a summer job won’t even amount to a drop in the bucket and don’t bother forcing students to contribute.
But this inability to connect college costs with real earnings has other results too. It makes students more dependent on their parents. And it might make them less likely to appreciate what college has to offer. A few weeks ago, I wrote a column for the New York Post about the spoiled behavior of college students—partying too much, studying too little. I advised parents to start attaching more strings to their tuition checks, forcing kids to spend more time in the books and less time drinking (and rioting after athletic events).
I wonder if college students could actually see themselves wasting their own hard earned money whether it would make a difference.