Wendy Birdsall heads to Clements Hall for a class at Southern Methodist University in Texas on Sept. 23, 2015. Credit: Louis DeLuca | TNS

A little more than a year ago, The Atlantic published a story describing how much more difficult it is today for students to work their way through college than it was just a few decades ago.

The premise was that, even though today’s Millennials have often been chided as “lazy and entitled,” the truth is, they legitimately have the deck stacked against them when it comes to getting the post secondary education widely considered necessary to pursue the country’s top jobs.

The reason is that while their parents and grandparents could legitimately pay off their college education as they went, the cost of college has skyrocketed in the years since then and typical wages haven’t come close to keeping up.

Leaning on the numbers used in a Reddit discussion thread about the topic, The Atlantic used Michigan State University as an example:

“In 1979, when the minimum wage was $2.90, a hard-working student with a minimum-wage job could earn enough in one day — 8.44 hours — to pay for one academic credit hour [which cost $24.50 at the time]. If a standard course load for one semester consisted of maybe 12 credit hours, the semester’s tuition could be covered by just over two weeks of full-time minimum wage work — or a month of part-time work. A summer spent scooping ice cream or flipping burgers could pay for an MSU education.

The cost of an MSU credit hour has multiplied since 1979. So has the federal minimum wage. But today, it takes 60 hours of minimum-wage work to pay off a single credit hour, which was priced at $428.75 for the fall semester.”

The highly publicized $1.19 trillion student loan debt crisis in the country has ballooned to its current point because students have had to borrow what they couldn’t pay out of pocket for their college education. And at least one study of labor statistics found that Americans with four-year college degrees made 98 percent more per hour on average than people without one.

Building off that premise, we decided to take a look at generally how much you would need to make per hour in order to legitimately “work your way through college” around the country. For the sake of parameters, we assumed everyone would attend their home state university and pay in-state tuition and fees.

We also applied the national average amount of annual room and board costs — $10,138, according to The College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges — to those in-state tuition numbers. We used the national average, in part, because there are so many variables in how and where students live while going through college. At the University of Maine at Orono, for instance, a small single room and an unlimited meal plan add up to $10,824, a number that can go higher or lower depending on whether you take a roommate and how often you plan to use the dining commons.

Students can also live off-campus and buy their own groceries, as well. Given the range of possibilities, the national average just seemed easiest.

We then assumed students would work part-time — about 20 hours per week — while taking classes and full-time — 40 hours per week — during a 10-week summer vacation. That works out to 1,240 hours over the full calendar year.

Given that framework, we used diymaps.net to put together a simple, color-coded map of the U.S., showing how much a student in each state would need to make per hour over 1,240 hours of work to pay for a year of in-state tuition, fees, room and board.

map wages college

That map is based on the following average in-state tuition figures — again, from The College Board’s Annual Survey of Colleges — if you’re curious. (You can click on them to make them bigger.)


You’ll notice that while Maine is slightly higher than the U.S. average when it comes to in-state tuition and fees, it’s also the only state with a negative percentage change over the last five years, illustrating the University of Maine System’s efforts to freeze or reduce costs for Maine students.

Another thing worth pointing out about the map above is that there’s no place in the United States where the minimum wage is high enough to put a student through college — at least when using these criteria.

The places that come closest are perhaps Seattle and San Francisco, which are incrementally phasing in $15-per-hour minimum wages, although by the time they’ve implemented those wage limits, the in-state tuition costs will likely have increased as well.

Wyoming boasts the least expensive in-state college costs, with students needing to make a nation-low of $12 per hour to afford to put themselves through school. But the state also has the country’s lowest statewide minimum wage of $5.15 per hour, a figure that applies to about a third of the state’s workers, who don’t qualify for the federal minimum wage of $7.25 per hour (which otherwise takes precedence).

In comparison, a student would need to make a full $20 per hour to work his or her way through college in New Hampshire or Vermont, by these metrics, and it might be hard to find a job paying that wage to someone who hasn’t graduated college yet.

So how much would you need to work at the minimum wage to pay for a year of in-state tuition, fees, room and board?

In Maine, the statewide minimum wage is $7.50 per hour. The state’s largest city of Portland has approved a citywide minimum wage of $10.68 per hour starting Jan. 1, 2016, and increasing incrementally from there. The liberal Maine People’s Alliance is pursuing a statewide referendum that would ultimately increase the Maine minimum wage to $12 per hour, while Portland’s Green Independent Party recently campaigned for a $15 per hour minimum wage in the city — although that referendum failed at the polls on Election Day.

Here’s how much a Maine student would need to work at each of those wage levels — as well as the $16 per hour figure listed in the map above — to pay for a year of in-state tuition, fees, room and board. Total hours in a year are on the X axis.

hours per week to pay for college

Given the time commitment of a full course load, it’s tough to imagine a student being able to work 50-plus hours each week and also keep up with his or her studies, although these figures are leveled out over 52 weeks in a year, so they’d probably be a little higher in the summer and a little lower while classes are in session.

Using the $12-per-hour figure, for instance, a student could work hard in the summer — let’s say, 60 hours per week at a couple of retail jobs — and then ease off the throttle a bit during the school year, only working about 25 hours per week the rest of the time.

This is all very much back-of-the-napkin math, of course, and doesn’t take into consideration things like whether the student could ramp up working hours on holiday breaks, nor whether the student spends money on anything other than tuition, fees, room and board. Adding a couple dozen extra work hours over the year would change the equation one way, while tacking on another $25 per week in recreational spending money (which adds up to $1,300 over the year) would change it another way.

And again, this is a look at how a student would work his or her way through college along the way, graduating without debt after four years. There are other pathways that could include taking out small student loans to pay the difference, or spreading the course load out over six or eight years and working more hours along the way.

Seth has nearly a decade of professional journalism experience and writes about the greater Portland region.