Some Dem presidential candidates are promising to erase student loan debt. I wonder if this is wise because I worked my way through college and never took a student loan. Is that fair to the students that worked their way through?
Dear Kurt Sawyer,Your bio says that you graduated college in 1977. An average cost for private university in the 1976–1977 calendar year was $4715, including room and board. It wasn’t much different for a public university. A maxed Pell Grant in 1977 for a student at a 4 year private university averaged about 45% of the cost of tuition, room and board, or about $2,155 if we round to the nearest $5. Assuming you got a maxed Pell Grant without any other aid and went to a 4 year private university, that’s a net difference of $2,560.Minimum wage in 1977 was $3.25 an hour. If you paid your own way through at a minimum wage job or two, that works out to a smidge under 790 hours. If you worked full time in the summer and part time the rest of the time, assuming 13 weeks of summer vacation, that works out to 520 hours worked during the summer and 270 hours the rest of the year—about 7 hours a week during the semester.Is that how much you worked and paid? I have no idea, but I know the averages, and they were in your favor.You know, I would have loved that relative set of expenses. So would today’s students. Your workload was lighter, a lot lighter.A student graduating a public university in 2022 paid an average $9,716 for the previous academic year if they stayed in-state—just for tuition.  Add in room and board and the figure goes to $21,370—a mere $1k a month to keep body and soul together.  A maxed Pell Grant for 2018–2022 was $6,095. Assuming you got a maxed out Pell Grant without any other aid and went to public university, that’s a net difference of $15,275.Minimum wage in much of the country is $7.25 an hour.If a student who graduated this year tried to work their way through college, they would have to work 2107 hours at minimum wage to be debt free. 2080 hours is 40 hours a week, 52 weeks a year.The numbers are considerably worse for private non-profit universities if the Pell Grant is your only aid. Average private university cost was $48,510. The net difference of $42,415 is simply impossible to do pay as you go if you’re at federal minimum wage—5850 hours of work to make it. Add that to 2920 hours assuming 8 hours of sleep a night and you have -10 hours a year to go to school, let alone eat, do homework, or get stuck waiting for the next bus.Does that make sense to you? Should we be asking our students to work full time or double-time so they can study full time too? What about sleep?This is why so many students have taken out loans. We cannot expect them to have time to study if they don’t get loans or other grant money.This is why getting rid of student loan debt for current graduates makes a lot of sense. You are asking them to do double, triple, even quadruple the work you did to make it through debt-free. That’s simply not realistic.We need to re-do our financing for public higher education. Getting students to the point where they could work part-time like you did to be able to afford tuition, fees, room and board would be acceptable. Expecting them to work full-time and more just so they can study full time is not the bar we should be setting for students.Promoting higher education, continuing education, vocational training and job-related training is a very good way to promote the general Welfare. Promoting the general Welfare is a national mandate.I will ask again: does this make sense to you?EDIT: It was pointed out in comments (thank you Tony Evans) that minimum wage in 1977 was actually $2.30. That requires recalculation; the original numbers I am leaving up to show my original error and to explain why various comments also refer to $3.25 an hour.The $2560 difference in 1977 would have required 1,114 hours of minimum wage work, rounded up, to fully cover the gap. Still assuming full time work for 13 weeks during the summer, that left 594 hours of work for the rest of the year, or about 15.25 hours per week the rest of the year. That is much tougher than 7 hours a week, but still much easier than a full-time job year-round.Neither the federal minimum wage nor the Pell Grant have kept up with the rate of inflation in higher education.Footnotes Average undergraduate tuition and fees and room and board rates charged for full-time students in degree-granting institutions, by type and control of institution: 1964-65 through 2006-07 https://fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R45... https://www.usnews.com/education... Tuition and Fees and Room and Board over Time https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/typ... U.S. Department of Labor