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