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Updated on Wednesday, November 9, 2016
Affordability was a major factor when 19-year-old Bintou Kabba was considering colleges to attend after high school. She enrolled at CUNY Lehman, a four-year public university in her native Bronx, N.Y. The 10-minute commute from her home, where she lives with her parents and six siblings, was part of the allure. But the low cost of tuition was essential for Kabba, an ambitious student with dreams of becoming a neonatal gynecologist but without the financial means to afford a pricey university. Most CUNY Lehman students pay just $2,374 out of pocket for a year of schooling.
But before she began classes, Kabba needed a job. “I was broke and I needed money so badly,” she told MagnifyMoney. So, she joined the ranks of so-called “working learners” attempting to counter the costs of college with part-time jobs. About 40 percent of undergraduates and 76 percent of graduate students work at least 30 hours a week throughout the school year, according to the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce.
As college costs have skyrocketed in recent years, the old adage “Work your way through college” has become increasingly out of touch with reality. Students who work rarely earn enough to truly cover the costs of their education.
MagnifyMoney sought to find out which colleges are still affordable enough for working students to afford on part-time wages. In a new study released Nov. 9, we found a student earning the federal minimum wage ($7.25/hr) would have to work full-time — nearly 44 hours per week — to afford the average annual net tuition at a four-year public institution today.
We then wanted to see how far a student working 20 hours per week at their state’s minimum wage could get toward covering their net tuition. Their post-tax annual earnings were compared with the net tuition price at more than 2,500 public and private non-profit institutions.
- We found it is impossible to cover the tuition gap at most four-year schools, both private and public.
- Students can afford to cover their net tuition costs with a part-time job at only 50 out of 645 (7.75%) of four-year public institutions. Students can feasibly cover net tuition costs with a part-time job at just 24 out of 1,208 private nonprofit four-year institutions (2%).
- Two-year public institutions were significantly more affordable — it was feasible for part-time working students to cover net tuition at 287 out of 656 two-year public schools (43.75%). On average, a student earning the federal minimum wage would only need to work roughly 25 hours per week to cover net tuition costs at a two-year public institution.
- Less than 5% of private two-year and private four-year institutions are affordable enough for a part-time working student, MagnifyMoney found.
The cost of going to college has outpaced the rise in wages by a staggering amount over the last decade. When faced with a gap in college costs and earnings, families typically have just one place to turn – student loan debt.
Kabba wanted to avoid student debt at all costs. That drove her decision to enroll at CUNY Lehman. The school is the fourth most affordable four-year public college on our list. Earning the New York state minimum wage of $9/hour, a part-time working student could pocket more than enough to cover their expenses.
Still, working long hours to cover college expenses is far from the ideal college experience.
Research has shown demanding work schedules can all too easily conflict with student’s academic performance. Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce warns against any job that demands more than 30 hours per week from a full-time student.
On a tip from her high school counselor, Kabba landed a $10/hour gig soliciting telephone donations at a midtown-New York charity. During her freshman year, she worked 20 hours most weeks. With a full course load to juggle as well, it wasn’t long before Kabba started to feel the pressure of conflicting responsibilities.
“It was just too much,” she said. To get to work each day, she took a 45-minute train ride from the Bronx to midtown. Rather than working around her class schedule, she had to work her class schedule around her job, because the charity had strict guidelines on when workers could call donors. By the end of her freshman year, her grades started to reflect her strain.
“I decided I’d rather be unemployed and actually do well in school,” says Kabba. She quit before her sophomore year.
Not long after leaving her inflexible charity job, Kabba found another solution. Through a special program offered at CUNY Lehman, she landed a job on campus that paid $9/hour and only required 10 hours of work per week. Reducing her hours and pay meant smaller paychecks, but a better chance she’ll earn the grades she needs to achieve her goal of going to medical school. “It’s on campus and it’s convenient,” she said.
Behind the data
To make our findings more exact, we used the minimum wage of the state in which each school resides to determine the annual earnings of working students. Next, we analyzed data from the National Center for Education Statistics to determine the net tuition costs of each school. The net price is more accurate than a college’s sticker price because it factors in financial aid, scholarships and grants. The net price is what students and families actually pay out of pocket.
We stuck to a 20-hour part-time work schedule because we thought it was unrealistic to assume students could juggle a full-time course schedule and a full-time job. In fact, Georgetown recommends students work no more than 30 hours per week in order to maintain good grades in college.
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Tips for working college students
It is virtually impossible to “work your way through school” anymore. The old adage just doesn’t apply to today’s college students, who are paying more than ever for college tuition and can’t feasibly cover their expenses with part-time income alone.
However, there are still benefits to working while in college. Here are some tips on how to maximize savings as a working student.
How to save on college costs with a part-time job
- Start small. Try going to a lower cost community college and transferring your credits to a larger institution later. As our study shows, it’s possible for students working part-time to cover net tuition at the majority of two-year public institutions 43.75%). By covering tuition and fees with a part-time job at a two-year school, you can reduce your need for financial aid by half and still graduate from a four-year institution.
- Work part-time at a campus job or through a work-study program. Jobs tied to campus are more likely to work around your course schedule and be flexible during unusually demanding times of year, such as quarterly exams and finals.
- Stay close to home. Not only will you save on tuition by enrolling at an in-state school, but if you are close enough to continue to live with your family while you’re studying, you could save big on housing expenses. If living at home means commuting by car or public transit for classes, factor in those additional costs.
- Don’t rely on student loan debt for expenses you can cover with part-time work. Save the student debt for tuition and other fees that are usually required in one lump-sum payment at the beginning of the semester. When it comes to extra expenses, like your trip to Key West for spring break, or moving to an off-campus apartment, lean on income earned from a part-time job. If you move off campus, you might find it is possible to afford rent (with support from roommates) with income from a part-time job.
- Choose your job wisely. If possible, find work in your area of study, which can give you an early jump start in the job market before you even graduate. If you have several years of job experience under your belt at graduation, you’ll be light years ahead of your peers graduating with a comparatively thin resume. Another study by Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce found college students who worked or took internships while in college were more upwardly mobile after graduation and more likely to move into managerial positions.
- Take advantage of in-state tuition rates even if you are not a permanent state resident. Each state has its own residency requirements for students looking to qualify for in-state tuition rates, which can be significantly lower than out-of-state rates. Some states will allow students to qualify for in-state tuition if at least one of their parents has been a resident for at least one full year before the student enrolls. If the student is independent — meaning they do not receive financial assistance from a parent to attend college — most states require at least one year of residency in the state. There are other documentation requirements, which can be found at FinAid.org.
- Don’t sacrifice your studies for a paycheck. At a certain point, the financial benefits of working part-time might not be worth the additional stress and attention a job might demand. The majority of working students ages 16-29 work 20 hours or less per week. However, research has shown both working and non-working college students graduate with similar levels of student loan debt — 34% of working college students graduate with $25,000 or more in student loan debt, compared to 37% college students who don’t work while in school.
- Graduate early (or on time). Dragging out your time in college is a quick way to add thousands of dollars to your student debt load. And it happens more often than you might think. Only 40% of students graduate within four years of enrollment across all types of institutions, according to the Department of Education. Less than one-third of college students graduate on time at public institutions. Save additional tuition expenses by completing your degree in four years or less.