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When Did It Become Impossible to Work Your Way Through School?

Topics: Data & Research

It used to be that students could work their way through college and still have time to study and fit in a little extracurricular fun. However, with college tuition at an all-time high, it almost seems like a luxury even to afford college nowadays. When did the cost get so steep?

work your way through school
Image Credit: Daniel E. Lee/Flickr

The Price You Pay for Higher Education

According to the College Board, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2015–2016 school year was $32,405 at private colleges, $9,410 for state residents at public colleges, and $23,893 for out-of-state residents attending public universities, reports College Data. Students can expect to tack on an additional $10,138 (four-year public schools) to $11,516 (private schools) for room and board, and an estimated $4,000 to $5,000 more in books, supplies, transportation, and miscellaneous costs. When it’s all said and done, some students at private universities are looking at an annual college price tag of nearly $50,000.

Dr. Randy Olson, a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania Institute for Biomedical Informatics, conducted his own analysis on working through college and found that students nowadays have to work an estimated five times more hours to afford college than students back in 1979.

Do You Know What You're Worth?

“The average university student in 1979 only had to work 182 hours per year (a part-time summer job) to pay for tuition, whereas the average 2013 student had to work 991 hours (a full-time job for half the year),” says Olson.

Mind you, Olson’s analysis only considers tuition and fees, not room and board and other expenses associated with attending college.

It’s no surprise, then, that students are relying heavily on school loans to afford college. In fact, “Americans owe nearly $1.3 trillion in student loan debt, spread out among about 43 million borrowers,” reports Student Loan Hero. What’s more, “the average Class of 2016 graduate has $37,172 in student loan debt, up six percent from last year.” Although student loans are definitely a means to an end for the immediate need of paying for college, is it really worth it if students are drowning in student loan debt after graduation? As it turns out, your choice of alma mater and major can be your saving grace in the end.

The Most Bang for Your College Buck

Not all colleges or majors have the same return on investment (ROI), as you can see from PayScale’s College ROI Report. While some colleges like Caltech, MIT, and Harvey Mudd College will run students a pretty penny to attend ($230,000+ for total 4-year cost), the expected 20-year net ROI is nearly $1 million.

Likewise, being selective (or strategic) with your choice of major can also make the difference in whether or not your college dollars are worth it in the end. While it’s no surprise that STEM majors prove to pull in some impressive ROI numbers, that doesn’t mean you can’t be successful with your humanities degree — you just have to know which schools have the best ROI for your chosen major.

In the end, your best bet as a student is to figure out what college is right for you. Take a good hard look at how the numbers stack up so that you can make the best investment in your future. But don’t feel bad if you can’t do it all without loans; these days, few can.

Tell Us What You Think

Did you work your way through college? Tell us how you managed to juggle school, work, and extracurricular activities during your collegiate career. Join the conversation happening on Twitter, or leave a comment below.

Leah Arnold-Smeets
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