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The good old days

Are you old enough to remember when it was possible to work your way through college? I am. A minimum wage summer job and maybe a little part-time work during the school year could get you a degree at a very good school. No more.

The grandfather of a graduate student at Michigan State University was talking about those good old days and preaching to his grandson about the benefits of hard work and self-reliance. The student decided to check the numbers and see just how hard you’d have to work to pay for a college education today. Very hard, it turns out.

Sorry about all the numbers, but here we go. Tuition is determined by cost per credit hour. In the good old days, way back in 1979, one credit hour at Michigan State University cost $24.50. The minimum wage then was $2.90, so a student could pay for one credit hour by working fewer than 9 hours. Today, one credit hour at MSU costs $428.75. The minimum wage is $7.25 an hour so now it takes almost 60 hours of minimum wage work to pay for a credit hour.

It’s even tougher here in Arizona. ASU’s cost per credit hour ranges from $480 to $543. At an average cost of $511.50, that’s a little more than 70 hours of work needed to pay for each credit hour. Most students take between 12 and 15 credit hours per semester. That’s a total of between $6,138 and $7,672 per semester or between 847 and 1,058 hours of minimum wage work. Double all those figures for two semesters each year and at 15 credit hours per semester you’d need to work 2,116 hours. (A year of 40-hour work weeks is 2,080 hours.) Oh. And add another 180 hours to pay for books. And, if you can’t live at home and have Mom and Dad feed you, add another 1,350 hours of work a year for room and board.

With U.S. college students now carrying a collective $1 trillion in debt, the situation is obviously unsustainable. It is also is harming our ability to compete around the world. The more expensive education becomes, the less educated we’ll be. The founders of our state certainly recognized the importance of education. Section 6 of Article 11 of the Arizona state Constitution says, “The university and all other state educational institutions shall be open to students of both sexes, and the instruction furnished shall be as nearly free as possible.” For college students and their families, our state and our country, today isn’t nearly as good as the good old days.