Google the phrase “pay your way through college,” and you’ll be bombarded with a lineup of articles, news stories, and blog posts bemoaning that, in today’s economy, it’s simply impossible. But is it really?
The idea of working your way to an associate’s or bachelor’s degree harkens back to a time when tuition was comparatively cheap matched against median salaries. There’s no doubt about it—the cost of college has risen astronomically. In 1971, a year at Harvard would set you back $2,600. Today, it costs $45,278. If that figure had merely kept pace with inflation, the cost would be only $15,189. Clearly, tuition costs have spiraled out of control.
While college is nowhere near as inexpensive as it used to be, working your way through school isn’t as impossible as pundits would have you believe. Of course, it all depends on how you define “working your way.” It’s true that you can’t work 15 hours a week at minimum wage and expect to cover all your tuition, materials, and living expenses for school. But there are other options.
Here are four tips that can make working your way through school a reality:
1. Public, in-state schools are your best friend
In most cases, you’ll need to stick with a community college or a local state university. Unless you have a job from Daddy Warbucks, you won’t be able to make a private school work.
The numbers are straightforward. Working full-time year-round at the federal minimum wage, you’ll take in $15,080 per year before taxes. That won’t cover the cost of a private school, but it will at state-run schools. Average tuition at a public two-year community college is $3,347; at a four-year college, in-state tuition is $9,139.
Granted, working a full-time schedule while in school is seldom feasible, and you’ll probably need a lot more financial margin than minimum wage allows. But as we’ll explore below, there are other ways to keep costs in line.
2. Stay local, buy cheap
To effectively work your way through school, you’ll probably have to live at home (preferably rent free) and be selective in how you purchase school materials. If you simply can’t live at home, take on two or three roommates and split the rent. In many areas of the country, you’ll be able to live quite cheaply this way.
Another must: purchase your textbooks used, and look for good deals on school supplies and equipment. Don’t be afraid to buy a used laptop—Craiglist is full of them at significant discounts.
Remember, to make this plan work, you’ll have to live like a college student—or at least, how college students used to live! That means keeping your costs low and forgoing luxuries and perks. For some ideas on how to keep costs down, click here.
3. Go online
The popularity of online learning and distance education has exploded during the past decade. Tens of thousands of students are earning degrees exclusively online, while the vast majority of all college students regularly take online classes as part of their degree plan.
Pursuing your degree through distance education can be one of the best ways to make working through school feasible. Online learning allows for expanded schedule flexibility during the day. Even if you work a traditional nine-to-five job, you can get in your classwork in the evenings and on the weekends. How cool is that?
4. Pick up financial aid and scholarships
Don’t just work on the income part of the equation. Also consider ways to reduce your overall tuition costs, either through financial aid or hard-won scholarships. If you can, begin that process in high school. Apply, apply, apply. It just might carve a significant chunk off your tuition bill.
While working your way through school is certainly feasible, remember to keep first things first—your academics are crucial, and you don’t want them to suffer because you’re worn out from burning the candle at both ends working a job.
In fact, the best path might be to work a part-time schedule during the school year (15 to 20 hours per week) and then reorient to a full-time schedule during the summers. Better, if you can find work that is academically and vocationally relevant to your field of study, you’ll come out better prepared for your career.
For more reading on this topic, check out Georgetown University’s report Learning While Earning: The New Normal.