Academics & Research

Ahead of Higher Ed: Earning a degree off your own earnings near impossible

Twenty years ago, a grandfather pulled his grandson to his knee and told him a story beginning with, “Back in my day…” The anecdote most likely included “I had to walk to school” or “I paid 15 cents for a hamburger.” But now that reminiscent story can include, “Back in my day, I could work to fund my entire college education.” That is no longer the case.

Aside from the students blessed with generous, wealthy parents or a full scholarship, individuals are forced to fund their own education. They do so through financial aid, student loans or working. However, a compelling article in The Atlantic explored the fact that because of increasing tuition — even setting inflation aside — the modern student cannot solely fund their education based on their own earnings.

On average, in-state tuition at UH costs $300 per credit hour, depending on your college, and a 15-hour semester adds up to be just more than $4,500. For a two-semester school year, UH students are paying about $9,000 in tuition alone. With the minimum wage in Texas at $7.25, an employee working 20 hours, which is classified as part-time, will earn $7,540 in a year, not accounting for taxes. Based on these numbers, it would take you 41 hours of minimum-wage work to pay for one credit hour at UH. That translates to working 41 hours a week — during the 15-week semester — to completely fund your one semester, 15-hour course load’s tuition alone.

The Atlantic article recalls a time when this wasn’t the case — when a student could pay for his classes with one summer of work. Randy Olson, a graduate student at Michigan State University, crunched MSU’s numbers and came to this conclusion: “It’s impossible to work your way through college nowadays.”

UH was established in part by funding from philanthropist Hugh Roy Cullen, who had a condition with his funding.

“The University of Houston must always be a college for working men and women and their sons and daughters,” Cullen said. “If it were to be another rich man’s college, I wouldn’t be interested.”

Cullen’s mission has not been abandoned; about 26 percent of the 2013 student body were part-time students, most likely balancing employment.

And the University is not immune from rising tuition expenditures. Each new group of Cougars pays more than the last — something the University addressed when it approved a four-year fixed-tuition option students can use to cut some costs.

It has been an inevitable idea society has put on itself: Everyone needs to go to college, even if debt is the way to do it. But Olson argues there needs to be a balance of working, debt and making the most of the college experience you’re paying for.

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  • Could’ve said this years ago. Failed out because of working full time to pay bills.
    They won’t give financial aid (even loans) with less than a 2.0….. You can appeal, but to get it back you are put on a list of conditions, which includes having to take 12 credit hours. I had one of the ladies in CLASS essentially call me all but lazy last fall, and reduce me to tears in her office, while trying to appeal to getting back in.

    It’s a screwed up system, where people who don’t have everything in life handed to them get shafted.

  • Basically if you are trying to earn your degree off your own earnings, then you’re going to have to wait until you are 24 to get any aid. Even then it’s not enough.

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