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Paying for College on Minimum Wage in 1978 Was Easier

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PolitiFact fact-checked an Internet meme claim that a summer of minimum wage work in 1978 would generate enough income to pay for one year of university tuition that year.

The number crunchers at the site mostly agreed with the assertion, faulting it slightly for using broad-brush language: The claim is true for in-state tuition at public four-year colleges, not all higher-education institutions in the United States.

So how many hours would it take today to raise enough loot for a year’s worth of in-state tuition? Let’s look at the relevant numbers.

Additional Reading:

According to the College Board, net tuition for a student attending a four-year institution in her state was $3,050 in the 2012-2013 school year. The minimum wage in 2013 was $7.25. But that figure on its own can’t be compared to the minimum wage of past decades without adjusting for inflation. The lowest wage most employees could earn in 1978 was $2.65, which amounts to $9.67 in today’s dollars. (Curious aside: The minimum wage had the most bang-for-buck in 1968, when that year’s minimum wage of $1.60 was the equivalent of $10.60 today.)

The PolitiFact post assumed a student could find 40 hours of work a week in 1978, but, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average employee put in 34 hours of work per week last month. For leisure and hospitality workers, the number was closer to 28.

And now, the math: To generate $3,050 at $7.25 an hour, a student would need to work 421 hours. Let’s assume this labor-market tyro is on the lower end of hours worked per week – punching in at 30 hours a week. The student would need to hold down the same minimum-wage job for 14 weeks to net the dough she’d need for a year’s worth of tuition.

If the minimum wage were as high in real dollars as it was in 1978, the same worker would need to hold down her gig for 315 hours, or 10.5 work weeks.

It’s worth noting that only a small slice of workers who are paid hourly actually earn minimum wage – around 4 percent. In fact, second quarter numbers for 2014 show that median weekly earnings for workers ages 16-24 was at $464, though included among those are employees with degrees as well as high school dropouts.

And unless the student is living with her parents rent-free, there’s the cost of housing, transportation and food, too. Everyone could appreciate a 33-percent raise – the real difference in minimum wage between 1978 and today — but not all wage bumps are effectively equal. Past a certain point, the average consumer can make economic decisions based on choice, rather than necessity. But for the indigent, minimum wage isn’t enough to afford even the basics—a fact that undoubtedly weighs heavily on a student in a higher-education setting.

Another difference a few decades makes? The price of going to college has shot up considerably, however you wish to calculate it.