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Minimum-Wage Work Alone Won’t Get You Through College

By Sandhya Kambhampati (@sandhya__k) and Meredith Myers (@meredithmmyers)

August 28, 2015

Politicians and pundits love to talk about the character-building experience of working your way through college. But how realistic is that ideal? As one way of answering that question, here’s a thought experiment: Let’s say you’re planning to attend your state’s best-known public university (at the in-state rate, naturally) and you’re hoping a minimum-wage job will cover the cost. How long would you have to work at that job to recoup a year’s worth of tuition and fees?

We’ve created a tool to show you.

To start, we took the average in-state tuition and fees for each state’s flagship institution, dating back to 1998. Then we pulled together each state’s minimum wage over the same time frame. We adjusted all that data for inflation.

For the forthcoming academic year, attending a flagship university will cost about $10,500, on average, while the average minimum wage across states is $7.90. To put that in perspective, if you work a minimum-wage job for 20 hours a week, it would take you about one year and three months to get in the black.

If the federal minimum wage were raised to $15 an hour, a year’s worth of 20-hour work weeks would cover the average in-state tuition and fees in most states. (In Pennsylvania, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Illinois — where tuition and fees exceed $15,000 — you’d have work at least two extra months to break even.)

Now, here’s an important point to keep in mind: Tuition and fees are just one part of attending college. They don’t include room and board, books and supplies and other expenses that come with attending college — all of which can double or even triple the costs shown here. At flagships, these estimated costs can range from $8,000 to $19,000. We’re also not accounting for financial aid, which would mitigate the cost for many students, or for income tax and cost of living, which could exacerbate it.

Because we’re using tuition and fees only, the tool will show that in some states, you might actually be able to use work income to pay for the cost of college. For example, you’d have to work about eight months to afford the tuition and fees of $4,891 for the University of Wyoming. Factor in the full cost-of-attendance estimate listed on the university’s website — it’s $19,168 — and you’d have to work about two years and eight months to break even.

Part of the reason public universities exist is to open up opportunities to students who might have limited access to higher education. But the overall message here is clear: The majority of flagships have seen their tuition and fees rise rapidly, while the minimum wage has increased slowly. That shows how difficult the math behind college accessibility can be — and why financial aid is such a difference-maker.


× You tried to enter more than 40 hours a week. We’ve limited the number of hours you can enter because it would be unreasonable for a full-time college student to work more than 40 hours a week.

× You tried to enter a wage of more than $15 an hour. We’ve limited the maximum hourly wage to $15, in line with recent proposals. Even at that level, minimum-wage workers would still struggle to pay for college.


minimum wage in Florida *


yearly earnings


average in-state tuition and fees for one year at University of Florida


years of work to pay for a year’s tuition and fees

Methodology: The average tuition and fees figures were calculated from the Department of Education’s Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (Ipeds) for 1998-2013 for full-time, first-time undergraduate students for the full academic year. The list of flagship universities is compiled by the College Board. The 2014 data are from College Navigator, and the 2015 data are estimates from college websites. Federal minimum wage was applied if the state did not have one or if state minimum wage was less than federal. In both instances, federal minimum wage overrides state minimum wage for most workers. All data are adjusted in July 2015 dollars using the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ Consumer Price Index for all urban consumers, not seasonally adjusted. We used the CPI in July of the year in which the academic year begins. These data do not account for state or federal income taxes or any financial aid that a student may receive. Yearly earnings are based on 50 weeks.

TSIC Graduation 2015

BY Michael Quirk

Key West Citizen

(Previously published May 28, 2015)

Take Stock in Children will honor 50 Monroe County students in the program Saturday who are graduating from high school.

Take Stock is in its 13th year providing mentors, educational support and college scholarships to low-income and at-risk youth in Monroe County. The organization’s stated mission is to “break the cycle of poverty through education” and “embed student motivation, responsibility and support, respectively, through guaranteed scholarships, student accountability, and a one-on-one corps of committed mentors and role models.”

Twenty-one of the graduating seniors are from Key West High School, including Cadette Deneville, who has been in the program for six years. Deneville lives with her 34-year-old sister Marie, her niece and nephew. When she isn’t busy with school work or at her job at Fresh Produce on Duval Street, you can often find her reading. The most recent tale she’s delved into is “Memento Mori” by Jonathan Nolan. “It’s a short story and was really great,” she said. “It told you that time really doesn’t matter.”

Deneville said much of her free time lately has gone to packing: Two weeks after her June 5 graduation from KWHS, she departs for the University of Central Florida in Orlando. She will be majoring in bio-med with plans to fulfill her dream of becoming a dentist. “I’ve always had a thing for teeth; they’re the first thing I look at on a person,” she said. “It’s a passion of mine and I’ve always been sure that’s what I want to be.”

Another graduate is Yodis Fuentes, who joined Take Stock as a sophomore. Fuentes was born in San Jose, Costa Rica to Nicaraguan parents. When he was three, Fuentes moved to his parents’ native land, living with his grandparents while his parents headed to the United States, settling in Key West. At the age of 10, he began his long journey from Central America to the U.S.

After his father left America to meet him, Fuentes took taxis and buses to Mexico, only to see his father sent back to Nicaragua because of a lack of paperwork. Fuentes had to overcome his fear of flying as he took two planes across Mexico, meeting up with a group looking to make its way north.

“We were staying in a warehouse and I was the youngest one there. The next youngest was in his 20s,” he recalled. “I met up with this woman who helped me and she taught me a phrase, ‘I’m going with my aunt, uncle and cousins.’ She told me if someone asked me, to respond with that.”

Fuentes rode in a van with eight people up through Texas and was dropped off at his parents’ house in Key West.

After school, and in addition to his time working at K-mart, he will be attending Florida Gulf Coast University in Fort Myers. Fuentes has not decided what his major will be, but he is sure of his goal.

“The most important thing to me is to just be happy,” he said. “I want to have enough to provide for my family when they can’t work anymore and I want to help my (10-year-old) brother Steven pay for college.”

Like Fuentes, Cherline Riche had to adjust when she came to the U.S. Born in Haiti, Riche came to Key West when she was six years old. Now she is a tutor and mentor in Bahama Village, a place she hopes to help as much as the people there have helped her.

“When I came here, I didn’t know much English and wasn’t doing well in school,” she said. “But they helped me with my English as well as my homework.”

Riche will be attending Florida International University, citing the diversity and campus friendliness as her reasons for choosing the school. She is undecided on a major, but said she is leaning toward becoming either a nurse practitioner or a pediatric nurse. That decision is drawn from Riche’s passion for helping, particularly children.

“I love kids and seeing them evolve from maybe struggling in school to then getting good grades,” she said. “I like to help people and that’s why I want to be a nurse.”

A six-year member of the program, Riche said she’s thankful for the program and the alleviation of worry that student debt can bring. “Take Stock has lifted the burden of paying for college,” she said.