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.
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.
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.
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