Why can’t kids today just work their way through college the way earlier generations did?
The answer to that question isn’t psychology. It’s math. A summer job just doesn’t have the purchasing power it used to, especially when you compare it with the cost of college.
Let’s take the example of a working-class student at a four-year public university who’s getting no help from Mom and Dad. In 1981-‘82, the average full cost to attend was $2,870. That’s for tuition, fees and room and board.
The maximum Pell Grant award back then for free tuition help from the government was $1,800. That leaves our hypothetical student on the hook for just about $1,000. Add in a little pocket money, too — say $35 a week. That makes an extra $1,820 for the year on top of the $1,000 tuition shortfall.
Now, $3.35 an hour was the minimum wage back then. So, making $2,870 meant working 842 hours. That’s 16 hours a week year-round — a decent part-time job. It’s also about nine hours a day for three straight months — a full-time, seven-day-a-week summer job. Or, more likely, a combination of both. In short: not impossible. Far from it.
For today’s public university student, though, the numbers have all changed in the wrong direction.
Illustration: Michelle Kondrich for NPR