First They Came for the Bootstraps

You can’t work your way through school anymore:

Working one’s way through a public university in four years with a minimum-wage summer job and part-time campus work study — with little to no family assistance or need-based financial aid — is an outdated ideal of previous generations.

It’s virtually impossible today, if you do the math, and consider that tuition at four-year UW campuses has steadily risen above the rate of inflation since 1987, while state support has lagged below inflation since 1980. The diverging curves reflect a national trend of a dramatic shift in who covers the majority of cost for a college education: students and their families, instead of taxpayers.

Students today are paying a much higher share of the cost than students 40 years ago, when a family could have sent three kids to UW-Madison for what it costs to send one kid today, adjusted for inflation.

In 1978, a UW-Madison student paying his or her own way, without any help, had to earn $2,362. It could be done at minimum wage by working full-time through the summer and about 10 hours a week through the academic year, or a total 891 hours.

Today, a full-time UW-Madison student going it alone couldn’t physically work enough hours at minimum wage to earn $18,402 for tuition, fees, room and board. It would take 2,538 hours, or about 50 hours per week for 50 weeks.

So work two jobs. I can hear them saying it, the bootstrap people. So work three. So save every single penny you ever earn. Don’t eat lunch. Don’t eat dinner Don’t go to the movies. Don’t buy yourself a prom dress or a new shirt. Don’t put gas in your car. Don’t put gas in your mom’s car. Don’t drive anywhere. Don’t buy books. Don’t have cable. Sit in your room or your apartment and think, think about how if you spend even one red cent in your teenage years on a cup of coffee, you will never be able to go to STATE SCHOOL. And then get up the next day and go to work agin.

And at the end of that, when you worn thin as the sole of a marathoner’s shoe, when you have absolutely nothing left at all to give and are probably addicted to speed of some kind, THEN we’ll let you go to school, where you’ll be expected to compete with people who, instead of having four jobs and basically a mortgage before they turned 18, had extra credit and private tutors and time to learn instruments and read poetry and play four sports. I mean, fucking hell. Even if you make the money, what are you supposed to do then?

Work a miracle, I suppose. There’s always an anecdote with these people. I knew a kid who … Yeah, and the presence of an exception IMPLIES THE EXISTENCE OF A RULE.

I’m not insensitive to the idea that laziness gets you nowhere, and that you have to work for what you say you want, but not only could I not afford to put msyelf through school at these prices even my parents couldn’t have afforded it, with what they made when I went to college. And this is a public university, which as I was reminded once — when I applied for a job at an elite paper that rhymes with SCHMIBUNE — is considered inferior in the minds of many. This is what you should be able to hope for in a basic situation. This is not the Ivy League.

Nobody can have nice things anymore.


6 thoughts on “First They Came for the Bootstraps

  1. “Kids these days are so lazy, I worked to put myself through school!”
    Using the 891 hour thing from your quoted article at $7.25 (WI and federal minimum wage), you could make $6459.75. Increase that to 950 hours (40/week during our 15 week summer and 10/week for 35 of the remaining 37 weeks) and you’re still only looking at $6887.50.
    Tuition and fees at UW-Madison are $10,609 for Wisconsin residents. That’s a nearly $4K deficit right there, and that’s assuming your Wisconsin resident parents live in Madison and you can live at home and eat their food for free, and you can check every book and supply you will need out of the library or something. So if you’re working your way through school at 1978 levels and living and eating for free, you could ostensibly graduate with $16K in debt. And remember, that’s not unsupported – that’s with free room and board.
    According to College Data, the average indebtedness of a 2011 UW grad (not just the magical self-supported ones living in their parents homes and eating for free, but also the ones with scholarships and wealthy parents and so on) is $24,140.
    Our state school, ladies and gents.

  2. I don’t imagine the “Wisconsin Idea” can survive much more of this. And killing every vestige of progressive ideals is, I’m sure, considered one of the upsides by the Republicans in the legislature and the governor.

  3. I was reflecting on that a while back when I was looking at my kids out here. When I tell them I could pay for college with an insane summer work schedule and a part time job in the regular year, they look at me like that’s not humanly possible. Well, it was when I was paid about $5-6 per hour, plus time and a half for over-40 hours per week and tuition was something like $900 per semester.
    Now, I have no idea how the hell I’d have ever paid for school. Ever.

  4. I remember this came up in recent years when that Republican Congress Critter woman — forgot her name — was talking about how SHE had managed to work her way through school and get a degree in 5 years back in the ’60s so surely EVERYONE today can, and if you can’t you clearly Doing It Wrong.
    What was her name? I think she was from Virginia. Oh wait — I think it was North Carolina, and her name was Virginia something. Anyhoo, a truly horrible person, and completely out of touch with the reality of circumstances today.
    Which is TOTALLY why the Republicans are viewed as “out of touch” with today’s young people. It’s not an opinion, it’s a fact. And as long as Republicans want to shred the social safety net and cut Pell Grants and stuff like that, they’re just gonna keep digging their political graves.

  5. Unbelievable. Sigh. After blowing a full ride scholarship at LSU due to bad grades (at the time, tuition was $500-600 a semester) I wised up and paid my way through UW…but even those prices (I think $175 per credit) were relatively affordable.

  6. Oh, that’s depressing. I have no idea how my kids are ever going to be able to afford to go to college.

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