(NerdWallet) – For the past few years, the out-of-pocket costs for attending a public four-year college have decreased and minimum wages have risen in many states. While you might think these shifts should make it easier for students to work their way through college, it would still take a herculean effort — adding a full-time job (or more) — to a full-time course load.
Assuming a student earns the average of state minimum wages ($10.40 per hour), they’d need to work 35 hours per week to cover the average costs at a public four-year school in their state. And that wouldn’t account for additional expenses, such as gas and car insurance, recreational activities or any unexpected costs. It also wouldn’t leave much room for the estimated 30-45 hours per week they’d need to dedicate to their full-time courseload.
Wages and inflation affect working student outcomes
The net cost of attendance — which includes tuition and fees, room and board, books and an allowance for personal expenses, minus grant aid — has been declining for the past six years, reaching $19,250 in the 2022-2023 school year for in-state students at public, four-year institutions, according to data from the College Board. Inflation has played a role in this real decline: The cost of higher education hasn’t grown as quickly as the overall inflation rate.
Rising state minimum wages are further improving affordability. Over the past two years, 24 states have increased their minimum wages, and college students are more likely to work in low-wage jobs. As minimum wages increase, workers in low-paying jobs making more than the minimum generally get raises too — employers are likely to increase other wages to keep them roughly proportionate.
But not every locale is benefitting from such increases. Twenty states either don’t have a minimum wage or have it set to match the federal minimum wage: $7.25 per hour. At that rate, a student would need to work 51 hours a week to pay the cost of attendance.
About 40% of undergraduates work while in college, according to the Department of Education, but it’s unlikely they’re paying for their entire education. Most graduate with student loan debt. In order to graduate completely debt-free, working students would overextend themselves. Most full-time students take about 15 credit hours, which accounts for an estimated 30-45 hours of learning in and out of the classroom each week. Add to that 25-50 hours of work and you have an unsustainable schedule that is not conducive to learning, let alone getting good grades.
When loans are needed, borrow strategically
State and institutional grant aid has climbed over the same period that net price of college has come down, according to data from the College Board. The two are directly related: College grants reduce the out-of-pocket costs of higher education. Grants can be based on a student’s financial need or merit. Still, in the 2020-2021 school year, undergraduates borrowed $44.7 billion in federal student loans.
Loans are often a necessary part of going to college, and students would be wise to not jeopardize their chances of earning a degree by running themselves ragged at a job that may not have a dramatic impact on their bottom line.
Here are some tips for working students to manage it all:
1. Set a sustainable schedule. This goes for both your job and school. Taking on too many work hours or credit hours can hurt your chances of success when it comes to earning your degree.
2. Fill out the Free Application for Student Aid (FAFSA). Fill the application out as soon as possible, every year. Some financial aid is first come, first served and waiting until the last minute could mean having fewer available grant funds. And grants don’t have to be repaid — we like grants.
3. Apply for scholarships, every year. Incoming freshmen aren’t the only ones who should be scrambling to apply for scholarships. Keep an eye out for this type of “free money” throughout your college career, and apply every chance you get.
4. Borrow federal first. If you’re borrowing money for school, look to federal student loans first. These will be offered in the financial aid package from your school after your FAFSA has been processed. They typically come with lower interest and more repayment options than private student loans.
5. Ask for help. College can be stressful, and working through college compounds the pressure to measure up. Reach out to an advisor or student counseling if you need help with your schedule or just want to talk through all of the demands on your time. They no doubt want to see you succeed, and you can bet they’re familiar with the challenges you’re facing.