WVU Tuition vs. Minimum Wage

As our senior policy analyst Sean O’Leary noted earlier this year, tuition at West Virginia’s public colleges and universities has skyrocketed over the last decade while state support for higher education has declined. The rise in tuition and fees at our public colleges has not only eclipsed the rate of inflation, but also the ability of students to work their way through college. 

Nationally, the share of full-time college students that were employed was 43 percent in 2015, and approximately 78 percent of part-time students were employed in 2015, according to the National Center for Education Statistics. The central reason students work is to pay their tuition, fees, and living expenses while attending college. 

In the 1970s, an undergraduate student could work less than four hours per week annually at a minimum wage job to pay for tuition and fees at West Virginia University. Today, that same student would have to work more than 18 hours per week annually at the minimum wage to cover just tuition and fees. 

As the graph below demonstrates, less than 4 weeks of full-time work at the minimum wage in 1980 ($3.00) could cover tuition and fees ($462) at West Virginia, which is basically a part-time summer job. Meanwhile, a student today would have to work a full-time job for half a year (23 weeks) at the minimum wage to pay tuition and fees ($8,369). That’s why today some say,  “it’s impossible to work your way through college nowadays.”


It is important to keep in mind that this is only looking at the cost of tuition and fees, let alone living expenses such clothing, transportation, food, books, or a computer. For example, room and board expenses at West Virginia University are $9,626 today or nearly $1,300 more than tuition and fees for 2017-18. While the figures in the graph do not include financial aid or grants for students, the minimum wage figures also assume no wages are withheld for taxes, benefits, etc.  

Given the growing cost of higher education and the sharp reductions in state support for public colleges in West Virginia, and the decline in purchasing power of the minimum wage, working your way through college is out of reach for most students in West Virginia. Instead of more cuts to our state’s public colleges, policymakers need to recognize that investments in higher education provide significant economic benefits to our state and help ensure more of students don’t leave college with unsustainable debt and poor job choices. 


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