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Is Bootstrapping College Still Possible?

By Wednesday, 05 February 2014 07:15 AM Current | Bio | Archive

According to the education lobby, spending more time (and money) on school will solve almost any problem. They persist in the argument despite abundant evidence otherwise.

Even many conservative adults concede the point. Their advice to unemployed and underemployed young Americans: "Pull yourself up by your bootstraps, work your way through college and then get a good job like I did."

This may well have been good advice 30 years ago, but "working your way through college" is much harder now. I can prove it mathematically, too.

According to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni, higher education costs rose 538 percent from 1985 through today. In that same period, medical costs rose only 286 percent and the consumer price index (CPI) rose 121 percent.

In other words, education prices rose almost five times faster than CPI inflation — and inflation rose faster than the minimum wage, which was $3.35 in 1985. Now it is $7.25, just 116 percent higher.

The combination of these two factors means paying for college now demands a proportionally larger share of a student's available work time than it did back then.

Obviously, some colleges are more expensive. Recently I saw a TV commercial for one of the for-profit colleges dangling $5,000-per-year tuition as if it were some kind of bargain.

Is it financially possible for anyone to spend $5,000 a year on college tuition and pay for it with a part-time, minimum wage job? Here is the math.

The $5,000 expense divided by 52 weeks in a year is $96.15 per week. Say an enterprising young person manages to find a job earning more than minimum wage, say $9 per hour. How many hours per week must he work just to pay for school?

Well, $96.15 divided by $9 per hour gives us 10.7 hours per week. Actually, it would be a little more, since the net on $9 per hour is really $8.30 after Social Security and Medicare taxes. Twelve hours is more accurate.

A bootstrapping student today has to work 12 hours a week, every week of the year, just to pay tuition at the cheapest, low-bidding college.

This doesn't include living expenses. Even students who cram into tiny apartments with roommates, eat noodles and ride the bus typically work another 15 to 20 hours a week just to survive.

Then, on top of a nearly full-time job (which is not easy to find), today's students must go to class and do their homework. Otherwise, the whole exercise is pointless.

Millions of young Americans are following this plan and finding it is not sustainable. Those who persevere and earn a degree often find it bought them very little additional income.

The solution for many students and families is to borrow money. In most cases, they simply postpone the pain. The real problem is that modern education costs too much and delivers too little. The millennial generation is learning it the hard way.

If nothing changes, the U.S. labor force will soon consist of overeducated, underskilled, debt-enslaved late bloomers competing against energetic, debt-free youngsters from China and India.

This story won't end well, but our chances will improve if my generation realizes today's eager students face a different set of challenges. We could work a few hours a week and eventually get through college. For them, the task is exponentially harder.

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According to the education lobby, spending more time (and money) on school will solve almost any problem. They persist in the argument despite abundant evidence otherwise.
Wednesday, 05 February 2014 07:15 AM
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