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Why it’s so difficult ‘to work your way through college’ these days: That’s Rich! recap

CLEVELAND, Ohio – A lot of college students probably have heard this from time to time: “You can work your way through school like I did.”

But over time, that’s become nearly impossible to do, without also going into debt, scoring a lot of help through scholarships and grants, or getting substantial support from Mom and Dad.

Why? Two big reasons: (1) the rising cost of college and (2) a minimum wage that has not kept up with college inflation. Whereas a minimum wage job could cover the college costs in the early 1980s, it now would fall about $13,000 short of the tuition, room and board bill for the average Ohio public university, found.

The current edition of That’s Rich! – the personal finance column published on and in The Plain Dealer – put dollars and cents on this trend over the last 40 years. Check it out at this link – See just how much a minimum wage job increasingly falls short of paying for college these days

Here are other previous That’s Rich! columns on a variety of topics.

Medicare open enrollment starts Oct. 15; what you need to know

Answers to qualifying for unemployment, the $300 payments and disputed Ohio claims – Q&A

Is your budget tight during coronavirus? See these tips to help you cope, now and in the long run

How to get $300 extra in unemployment, 13 weeks in extra benefits, and more: Q&A

How to avoid scams; newest fraud tricks; can payment be stopped?

Where’s my $300 extra for unemployment? How about my missing stimulus check? – Q&A

Organize your financial records in case you get sick – a reader Q&A

Explaining Ohio’s maze of city income tax rates and credits, and why you should log where you’ve been working

With mortgage rates at historic lows, should you join the rush to refinance? – That’s Rich!

Ohio has $3.2 billion in unclaimed funds; find out if some of that money is yours – That’s Rich!

Roth retirement plan or traditional IRA and 401(k) plans? Is this the time to adjust your thinking?

Taking college classes online this fall? Here’s how students can save a lot of money

Does it make sense to pay off your mortgage early? Here’s what to consider

CARES Act makes this ideal time for a student-loan payment checkup

Coronavirus and taxes: Revised filing deadline nears; IRS not yet processing paper forms

What you need to know to get an unemployment check in Ohio

$300 Ohio unemployment benefit to be retroactive, other updates on unemployment, stimulus checks

Rich Exner, data analysis editor, writes’s and The Plain Dealer’s personal finance column – That’s Rich! Follow on Twitter @RichExner.

Email questions and suggestions to Include your hometown and first name for publication. And to help me sort through the clutter of my email box, try to remember including “That’s Rich!” in the subject of the email.

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See just how much a minimum wage job increasingly falls short of paying for college these days: That’s Rich!

CLEVELAND, Ohio – Once upon a time, a minimum wage job could cover the cost of college tuition, room and board – with money to spare.


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These days, forget about it.

A student working at the wage floor would be thousands of dollars short of the public university bill in Ohio, even after working full-time during the summer and other breaks, and 10 hours a week during the school year.

The solution: go into debt, score a lot of help through scholarships and grants, or get substantial support from Mom and Dad. For many students, these are potential options.

But consider the way it used to be. As late as 1982, a minimum wage job ($3.35 an hour then) with the same amount of work was enough to make about $200 more than the average cost at an Ohio public university ($3,431, according to the National Center for Education Statistics).

Fast forward to the 2018-19 school year, the most recent year for which average cost data is available from the federal NCES, and that same amount of work at minimum wage in Ohio would leave a student $13,056 short.

I first came up with model to look at college affordability about a decade ago for a couple of reasons. First, it helps address the reality when someone might tell a young student, “You can work your way through school like I did.” Plus, it gets to two financial areas of importance for many young adults, the cost of college and entry-level pay for a lot of jobs students might take on.

The recent announcement that Ohio’s minimum wage will increase to $8.80 an hour on Jan. 1 got me wondering whether the gap had continued to widen between the cost of college and pay for entry-level work.

The answer, no surprise here, is yes.

My starting point was the 1981-82 school year, the most recent year for which I could find that minimum wage work under my full-time/part-time scenario covered what the federal government said was the average cost for tuition, room and board at four-year public universities in Ohio.

By the 1989-90 school year, the pay fell about $2,100 short – $3,674 in earnings and $5,805 in college costs – and has gone up from there.

The gap widened to about $4,300 in 1999-2000 ($5,614 in pay and $9,900 for school), to $9,100 in 2009-10 ($7,957 in pay and $17,333 for school), and to just over $13,000 in 2018-19 ($9,097 in earnings and $22,153 for school).

Why the widening gap?

There are many reasons why the gap is so wide, and getting wider.

For starters, minimum wage pay- even with Ohio’s inflation-adjusted minimum wage – is not keeping up with the rising cost of education.

Schools haven’t been able to keep the cost of college down to the rate of inflation over time.

Ohio’s public universities on average are more expensive than most states. And, at least in Ohio, tax dollars are covering less of the college