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Why Summer Jobs Don't Pay Off Anymore

The minimum wage is flat, college tuition is up and students are broke: Summer jobs just don’t have the purchasing power they used to, especially when you look at the cost of college.

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(Michelle Kondrich for NPR)

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 $2,820 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.

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In the school year just ended, the total of tuition, fees and room and board for in-state students at four-year public universities was $19,548. The maximum Pell Grant didn’t keep pace with that: It was $5,775. That left our hypothetical student on the hook for $13,773.

A student would now have to work 37 hours a week, every week of the year, at the federal minimum wage of $7.25 an hour, to get by. Research shows that when college students work more than 20 hours a week their studies suffer. If they’re working full time, many will take longer to finish and end up paying even more.

To cover today’s costs with a low-skilled summer job? Over 90 days, a student would need to work 21.1 hours a day.

Of course, you could seek work in a city with a higher minimum wage like Washington, D.C. ($11.25) or San Francisco, where it’s about to rise to $13 an hour. But rent tends to be higher in those places, too.

Plus side: If you’re working that much, you may not need to pay rent because you’re hardly sleeping.

No wonder students are borrowing so much these days.

A version of this story was published on NPR Ed in June 2014.

Copyright 2016 NPR. To see more, visit NPR.

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