The myth of “working your way through college” today


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By Suzanne Martindale on Wednesday, October 14th, 2015

If you went to school a few decades ago, you may have found it pretty doable to get a summer job, maybe work a bit during the school year, and cover all your bills.  Today, however, the cost of education is rising by the minute and everyone is waking up to the fact that we are making it almost impossible to get a college education at an affordable price.

A piece from last year by the Atlantic points out the sad reality for today’s college students: while working part-time might have paid for school in the late 1970s, these days you’d have to work more than a full-time job (~48 hrs/wk) while in school to cover tuition at a public university.  That’s not even considering your textbooks and living expenses.

This helps explain way so many students and families have no choice but to take out loans in order to cover their education costs.   These loans aren’t cheap either – interest rates are well above the rates for other kinds of loans out there in the market – and multiple generations of former students are struggling to repay them.

To make things worse, many people who went to school years ago are still stuck paying their loans, and the companies that process their loan payments may be putting up barriers to getting out of debt.  Just today, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau (CFPB) released a new report detailing complaints they’ve received in the last year about these student money woes.  They have found that people with older federal loans are falling behind on payments at a higher rate – and that this may be because their loan servicers are not doing a good job of helping them and providing vital information about their rights.  The loans the CFPB analyzes in this report are from an older federal aid program that ended in 2010 – the Federal Family Education Loan Program – that allowed private lenders to make loans, with a federal government guarantee.  The companies servicing these FFELP loans appear to be frustrating people’s attempts to manage their loans and stay current on payments.

We’ve let education costs get out of control, forcing students to borrow money to pay for college.  The very least we can do is make sure that they’re treated fairly when trying to repay their loans afterward. That’s why we’ve called on the CFPB to write rules of the road for education loan servicing.  But going forward, we all need to ask ourselves – what can we do, together, to make college affordable again?

4 responses to “The myth of “working your way through college” today”

  1. Eric Moss says:

    Tuition at the state school I went to in the 80’s has gone up 10x, but the help to pay for it has only kept pace for the top 1% of students. So a lot of talented kids are just SOL. Unlike Jessica above, I think that having the government (ie, our tax money) pay for tuition at public universities is exactly the answer, as long as the student makes steady progress. It’s what distinguishes a civil society from a dog-eat-dog world of haves and have-nots. Notice I didn’t say funnel taxes into a black hole of expensive private and for-profit schools so they can build their endowments. I mean that people like me who make more than the average pay more taxes in order to build a smarter next generation whose talent is not wasted for lack of opportunity. Germany is doing very well with it, as we used to before politicians started telling us that common goals were a bad thing.

  2. Jessica Pamisano says:

    Don’t go to schools you can’t afford. Apply for all the scholarships and grants you can (your guidance office in HS can help you with this). Try community college for the first 2 years – it is significantly cheaper. Think about what you would like to do – does it require a 4 year degree?? What about trade schools, Associates programs etc…. Not every kid needs to go away to a 4 year school at $60K per year – there are LOTS of other options. A college degree is not a guarantee for a self-supporting job. Think about things while you are in HS – public schools offer AP classes, career tracks that can provide your child with certificates when they graduate (like phlebotomist, auto tech, CISCO cert etc… ). Get into a company that helps pay for college credits – there are many that do. Having the government pay for your education is not the answer!!

  3. Mark Sommer says:

    Many graduates are opting out of college altogether rather than face insurmountable debt to pay for it. Others are joining the Armed Forces to pay for college expenses. Pell Grants must continue to be a available to students who qualify. The grants are one of the few remaining options for middle class families to pay for the skyrocketing costs of higher education.

    • Andi B. says:

      Pell Grants max out at $5500, which isn’t a lot more than the max when I was an undergrad in the late ’80s. Yet the cost of yearly tuition at an average state school has more than doubled.

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