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Why Your Summer Job Doesn't Pay Off Like It Used To

Summertime means summer jobs for many college students. But, as we discussed today on All Things Considered, a summer job just doesn't have the purchasing power it used to, especially when you compare it to the cost of college.

Let's take the example of a working-class student at a four-year public university who's getting no help from Mom and Dad. In 1981 - 82, the average full cost to attend was $2,870. That's for tuition, fees, room & board.

The maximum Pell Grant award back then (free tuition help from the government) was $1,800. That leaves our hypothetical student on the hook for just about $1,000. Add in a little pocket money, too — say $35 a week. That makes an extra $1,820 for the year on top of the $1,000 tuition shortfall.

Now, $3.35 an hour was the minimum wage back then. So, to make $2,820 means working 842 hours. That's 16 hours a week year-round — a decent part-time job. It's also about 9 hours a day for three straight months — a full-time, 7 day a week summer job. Or, more likely, a combination of both. In short: not impossible. Far from it.

Let's look at the numbers for today's public university student. They've all changed in the wrong direction. In 2013-2014, the full cost of attendance for in-state students was $18,391. The maximum Pell Grant didn't keep pace with that.It's $5,550. That leaves our hypothetical student on the hook for $12,841.

The minimum wage has also gone up more slowly than the cost of college. It's
$7.25 an hour. At that rate, a student would have to work 1,771 hours to get by. That's 34 hours a week, every week of the year. To cover today's costs with just a summer job, a student would have to lose a little sleep, working almost 20 hours a day for three straight months. And that would still leave no money for books, travel home, pizza or a trip to the movies.

There's also a catch-22 at work here. Research shows that when college students work more than 20 hours a week their studies suffer. If they're working 34 hours, nearly full-time, many will take longer to finish... and end up paying even more.

No wonder students are borrowing so much these days.

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Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.