Given soaring costs, can students work their way through college?

Student loan, piggy bank with graduation cap.

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Student loan, piggy bank with graduation cap.

Credit: Submitted

Credit: Submitted

Whenever I write about the lack of need-based college aid in Georgia, readers assure me students can work their way through school. After all, they did it, sharing their recollections of mowing lawns or flipping burgers to afford tuition.

Such statements overlook the soaring price of a college degree today, which can’t be met by a job at Burger King. According to College Board data, tuition at a private college was $15,160 in 1987-1988. Thirty years later, in 2017-2018, annual tuition averaged $34,740.

For public colleges, tuition jumped from an average of $3,190 a year in 1987-1988 to $9,970 in 2017-2018.

In 2010-2011, students who graduated from top public campuses in the state, such as the University of Georgia or Georgia Tech, borrowed an average of $16,705. By 2015-16, average borrowing had climbed to $21,907.

Only 30 percent of low-income students in the University System get either the HOPE or Zell Miller scholarships, compared to 42 percent of middle- and upper-income students. Nearly one-half of University System of Georgia students are getting federal loans to pay for school.

As my AJC colleague Eric Stirgus recently reported, the Georgia Legislature may again tackle the issue of need-based aid:

There are about 525,000 students enrolled in Georgia's public and private colleges, and by some estimates, more than 10,000 of them drop out every year due to financial hardship. State lawmakers passed a bill on the final day of last year's legislative session aimed at filling the gap, but the final version of the legislation did not set aside a pot of money for students.

More Georgia students are relying on federal aid to attend college. The percentage of full-time University System of Georgia students who received Pell Grants, federal aid designed for students who fall under certain income eligibility levels, has increased from 34 percent to 44 percent over the last decade, state data shows.

After the Great Recession, college costs for many students rose at alarming rates while state support for each full-time student declined. From fiscal year 2006 to 2015, the average cost of attendance at University System schools increased 77 percent from $8,361 to $14,791 per year, according to a report by the Georgia Department of Audits and Accounts. Meanwhile, state legislative support for college costs declined from 70 percent to about 50 percent during that time period.

Many readers contend students gain maturity and confidence when required to work their way through school. But students can also end up losing, if they work too many hours or at jobs that don’t provide high-quality work experience.

A 2018 Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce study looked at the nearly 70 percent of students who work while enrolled in college. The stuy found low-income students tend to work more hours and pay a price in lower graduation rates.

Only 22 percent of low-income students working while enrolled complete a bachelor’s degree within six years, compared to 37 percent of higher-income working peers.

Regardless of a student’s income level, more hours on the job decreases the likelihood of earning good grades and finishing college. However, lower-income kids log more hours and while in jobs that that don’t complement their academic ambitions, the study found.

While the study showed higher-income students are more apt to land internships and assistantships that bolster their academic goals, low-income students are more likely to work in food service, and sales jobs with fewer opportunities for career-building work experience.

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