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Pay-as-you-go schooling might not be an option for college students any more
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Is your child flipping burgers this summer? She might have to work over 900 hours to pay for college tuition in the fall. - photo by Lane Anderson
In the grand tradition of summer jobs, many of America's freshly minted high school grads will pick up work flipping burgers and delivering pizzas this summer. But it's unlikely that those jobs will come close to paying tuition in the fall.

As the cost of tuition ratchets up every year, the prospect of pay-as-you-go schooling is becoming a quaint notion.

In a report from the Atlantic, a Michigan State University grad student calculated the price-per-credit hour at the public university and found that in 1979, when the minimum wage was $2, a credit hour cost about $24 per hour. At that rate, an ambitious student could pay tuition with just over two weeks of full-time work, or a month of part-time burger flipping.

Since then, the cost of tuition at MSU has far outstripped the minimum wage, and a single credit hour now costs a whopping $428.75. "Today the same student would have to work 48 hours a week at that minimum wage job to pay for his classes," the report says.

Interestingly, since 1979, the number of low-income kids attending college has also been dropping, suggesting that when students can't pay their way through school, they might be less likely to go. In 1979 kids from the richest 25 percent of households were four times more likely to go to college than the poorest 25 percent; by 1994 they were 10 times as likely, according to Jennifer Washburn, author of "The Tuition Crunch."

The biggest problem is with public colleges and universities that serve 80 percent of the country's students schools like MSU, and Arizona State and Ohio State.

"Since 1980 tuition and related charges have increased at more than twice the rate of inflation, rising by nearly 40 percent in real terms in the past decade alone," writes Washburn. "For many low-income families increases like these are difficult to absorb."

The cost of sending a child to a four-year public school can now eat up 25 percent of family income, according to Washburn.

Of course, tuition is only half the battle. According to College Board, room and board fees at public schools exceed tuition costs by a little over 100 percent. Average tuition at a four-year public school for the current academic year is $8,893. But with room and board, the average cost jumps to $18,391, according to the Atlantic report.

PBS has created an online calculator that allows you to plug in your own hourly income and hours worked over the school year, or during the summer, plus information about your school. It tabulates college costs for the year and your earnings and shows whether you've made enough or will need loans, financial aid or family money to foot the bill.

Assuming that a student works minimum wage for 20 hours a week during the school year, or 40 hours a week over the summer, average college costs "actually could have been paid for until the 2000-2001 school year," according to PBS. "After that, a student would have to work more hours or make more per hour to keep up."

But at more expensive private schools, even working full-time throughout the school year would not have earned enough to cover costs. "If a student chose a private school, minimum wage on average would never have covered college costs," the PBS report says.