You Can’t Work Your Way Through College Anymore

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The cost of college has risen at more than twice the rate of inflation for decades, and the increasing availability of federal student loans is a principal cause. But even as demands grow daily to do something about student debt and loan defaults, hardly anyone laments the demise of a once-proud American aspiration: working your way through college.

In 1956, as a freshman at Yale, I waited tables in a student dorm for about $1 an hour, 10 hours a week, over the 30-week academic year. I received a full scholarship, but even if it had ended, I recall that Yale’s “all in” price—including tuition, room and board—was $1,800 a year. My work during the term could have covered one-sixth of that.

Today tuition, room and board at Yale run $66,900. Working the same amount as I did—even at, say, $12 an hour, an increase of roughly one-third after inflation—produces income of $3,600, or slightly more than 5% of the total. To earn enough to pay for one-sixth of a Yale education would require an hourly wage of more than $37! Yale’s own literature, by the by, lists the amount that a freshman on scholarship can expect to contribute during the school year at $2,850. The same basic economics applies to summer employment.

Yale’s experience closely tracks what has happened at virtually all of America’s elite private colleges and universities. The situation in public schools is little better. A half-century ago, the tuition and fees at many such institutions were barely above zero. Fully working your way through college was a real possibility. Now a year’s education at a typical state university, even for in-state students, can easily exceed $25,000, well beyond what can be earned while studying full-time. That is why so many students at public institutions are now leaving college, whether or not they graduate, with mountains of debt.

To reduce their need to borrow, increasing numbers of students are attending community colleges for their first two years while continuing to live at home. Admittedly this helps, although at the cost of greatly diminishing the college experience. But it doesn’t change the financial realities once these students then transfer to four-year institutions.

Meanwhile, some students decide to borrow more than they minimally require in lieu of working at all during the academic year, or as a means to accept a challenging but unpaid summer internship. Given how little of their education they can pay for by working after class, this decision can hardly be dismissed as frivolous or extravagant. But it still adds to the massive debt.

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At Yale, undergraduates on scholarship have traditionally been required to provide what is known as “the student effort” by working about 10 hours a week during the academic year. A campus group called Students Unite Now is demanding that the university abandon this policy. The group’s leader says its objective is “to create a more equitable experience,” arguing that the work requirement is unfair to low-income students and students of color.

The university has not acceded to this demand, and Yale president

Peter Salovey

told the student newspaper last month that working was a “valuable part” of his own education. The article continued: “In an ideal world, Salovey added, he would want all Yale students to have work-study experience. But, he noted, no one is forced to work since students can take out loans.”

What would it take to graduate truly debt-free? A student who is willing to go to a community college, live at home, and work his way through college over seven or eight years could pull it off. But statistics indicate that taking this route greatly increases the likelihood of never earning a degree. It also means postponing things like getting married, having children and buying a house. The National Association of Home Builders describes this phenomenon among millennials as “The Great Delay.”

Yet trying to graduate in four years by taking on substantial debt also frequently means pushing back postcollege milestones. This is one of the reasons there is so much concern about the consequences of student debt for the overall economy.

The idea of working your way through college has become an anachronism, akin to pay telephones and black-and-white televisions—and the last two, of course, have been replaced by much better things. Today massive student debt is the norm, sometimes in addition to a job on campus and work during the summer.

Alas, a similar tale could be told about how rising college costs have affected another bedrock of American aspirations—the idea that a hardworking, thrifty family can save enough to make a significant contribution to their children’s higher education. But that is another sad story for another time.

Mr. West is dean emeritus of New York University’s Stern School of Business.



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