Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Can Students Work Their Way Through College?

College is truly expensive, and it's becoming more cost prohibitive each year. There is no doubt about that. And students are graduating with record loads of debt, with the average kid starting post-graduate life saddled by almost an $30,000 burden. However, some recent education critics have argued that "Working Your Way Through College is Impossible." Is it?

According to recent graduate Ethan Smith, it is "mathematically impossible to work your way through college." Apparently that dream has been gone for more than a decade. He presents a convincing argument about the burden of working to simply pay for tuition, and the current minimum wage jobs that are workable by full-time students barely make a dent. Providing anecdotes from several students and crunching the numbers with info from the Student Debt Project, it seems reasonable that students simply can't accomplish what they did in the 1970s. That much seems obvious. Student worker Randal Olsen is another person who has crunched the numbers, researched the challenges, and blogged extensively on the financial challenges facing today's generation of college kids.

However, there are some caveats and other aspects to the story of spiraling student debt - and a "definitive answer" on working your way through college. College is truly expensive - but some places are more so than others. For example, Ethan Smith (who I am assuming is from Colorado) attended Elon University in North Carolina. Elon is a small, private, liberal arts college that is, by all accounts, a pretty good school. Yet, the tuition alone at Elon is $30,000 a year - and that includes nothing in terms or living expenses or travel. By contrast, the tuition at the University of Colorado - Boulder is roughly $12,000 per year. And the total on campus cost for a CU student is about $28,000. So, outside of financial aid, Ethan's entire year at CU would cost less than just tuition across the country at Elon. A question for prospective students is: Is an Elon education worth three times as much as a CU education? We know that's not true.

Granted, $28,000 is no small change, and it would be tough to work enough to pay that off and be a full-time student. That much is true. But there are many other in-state options. The tuition at the University of Northern Colorado is roughly $6500 per year. And, students who stay close to home have the option of limiting their living expenses. So, the issue of college costs is certainly more complicated than the blanket statements by students such as Ethan and Randal. That said, the counterargument shouldn't negate the criticism of rising college costs - and there is no doubt that as states continue to cut budgets, suffering under low tax revenue, the burden will increasingly shift to students. However, the greater question may be whether communities and students and employers begin to re-evaluate whether college is necessary at all.

Regarding college costs, though, the recent documentary film Ivory Tower sides with Ethan Smith.

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