Study: Where Can Students Work Their Way Through College?

 December 3, 2018
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When it comes to paying for college, many students turn to employment to work their way through school. Over three-quarters of college students worked to help cover their college costs, according to the 2017 “How America Pays for College” report from Sallie Mae.

Yet these earnings won’t always make much of a dent. In the past three decades, college costs have risen by 213%, according to our comparison of costs across generations. Since 1970, incomes grew by just 67%.

For example, a student working 15 hours a week at the $7.25 federal minimum wage would earn $5,655 a year, $4,315 less than the average college cost of $9,970 for in-state students at public colleges.

To find out if working your way through college is still possible — or just a myth — we conducted a study comparing local minimum wages to costs at over 1,500 U.S. colleges. Here are the cities where we found that college students can earn enough to pay for college tuition.

Key findings


  • Students can pay their way through just 2.8% of colleges. Only 44 colleges (in 41 cities or metropolitan areas) have low enough costs that students working for minimum wage can cover tuition and fees through their earnings alone.

  • Local minimum wage laws make a difference. Of the 20 top cities where students can pay their way through college, 4 out of 5 had laws that set wages above the federal minimum wage of $7.25.

  • College costs matter, too. Among the 44 colleges where students could pay their way through college, annual tuition and fees averaged $6,176 a year. That’s nearly $3,800 less than the national average of $9,970.

  • Washington and California college towns stand out. Washington and California each have four cities in the top 20, thanks to respective minimum wages of $11.50 and $11 an hour.

Top 20 cities where students can earn enough to pay for college


We wanted to figure out if there were cities and schools where students could work their way through college.

Specifically, could students work 15 hours a week (the number of hours most often recommended to work without undermining academic performance) and earn enough to cover college costs?

To do so, we sourced local minimum wage numbers through the Economic Policy Institute and local government sites. Then we compared these wages to the average tuition and fees students pay in each city, across 1,587 colleges in the U.S., as reported in the most recent survey of college costs from data collection firm Peterson’s.

Our survey reveals that minimum wages have fallen far behind college costs. Students can earn enough to pay for tuition and fees at just 2.8% of the U.S. colleges included in this study. That doesn’t account for room and board, as well as other expenses that students will need to cover as part of their enrollment in college.

Fortunately, 41 cities are home to affordable colleges with tuition that can be paid for while earning the local minimum wage. Here are the top 20 cities where college students can work their way through college.

1. Cheney, Washington

  • Annual tuition and fees: $7,110

  • Minimum hourly wage: $11.50

Home to Eastern Washington University, Cheney makes the list largely thanks to Washington state’s high minimum wage. It’s currently at $11.50 an hour in 2018 and is set to increase to $12 an hour next year.

Students earning even the minimum in this state can expect to earn $8,970 a year working 15 hours a week. That’s more than enough to cover Eastern Washington University’s tuition and fees of $7,110, with $1,860 left to help with room and board and other costs.

2. Adelphi, Maryland

  • Annual tuition and fees: $7,176
  • Minimum hourly wage: $11.50

While Maryland has a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, Adelphi is in Prince George’s County, which has set a higher minimum of $11.50 an hour. College students here will gross the same $8,970 in part-time minimum wages as students in the No. 1 city, Cheney.

Adelphi’s four-year school, University of Maryland University College, also has similarly low tuition and fees. Students attending here and working part time would have $1,794 remaining after paying for college, just $66 less than their peers in Cheney.

3. Hays, Kansas

  • Annual tuition and fees: $4,007

  • Minimum hourly wage: $7.25

Next is Hays, a college town that matches the federal minimum wage. Students here face some of the lowest costs in the nation at Fort Hays State University.

The school’s tuition charges totaled $4,007 in 2017-18 for students, well under the $5,655 annual earnings of a student getting minimum wage in this city. In fact, such a student could pay tuition and still come out ahead of costs by $1,648.

4. Rexburg, Idaho

  • Annual tuition and fees: $4,018

  • Minimum hourly wage: $7.25

Rexburg matches its low minimum wage with rock-bottom tuition costs. Students attending Brigham Young University-Idaho, a private religious school and the only four-year college in town, paid $4,018 in tuition and fees for the 2017-18 school year.

That’s low enough that a student can pay tuition out of pocket with a minimum wage job and still have $1,637 left for other expenses.

5. Olympia, Washington

  • Annual tuition and fees: $7,416

  • Minimum hourly wage: $11.50

Next is another city in Washington — the state’s capital, in fact. Olympia is home to Evergreen State College, where tuition and fees total $7,416 a year.

Earning Washington’s generous minimum wage of $11.50 an hour, students in Olympia would get $8,970 in gross wages each year working 15 hours a week. This is more than enough to cover the school’s tuition costs out of pocket and provide a $1,554 surplus.

6. Turlock, California

  • Annual tuition and fees: $7,038

  • Minimum hourly wage: $11

Turlock’s college students can work 15 hours a week at a minimum wage job to gross $8,580 a year, thanks to the California minimum wage set at $11 an hour.

This amount comfortably covers a resident student’s annual tuition and fees of $7,038 in the city’s four-year school, California State University, Stanislaus. In fact, a student doing so can expect to have a little over $1,542 left to budget with after covering educational costs.

7. Dalton, Georgia

  • Annual tuition and fees: $4,116

  • Minimum hourly wage: $7.25

This city in Georgia is home to Dalton State College, an affordable option for students in the state pursuing a degree. The college’s tuition and fees total $4,116 a year. Students earning the federal minimum wage can pay their way through school.

With typical annual wages of $5,655 for working 15 hours a week, students here would have $1,539 remaining after paying tuition and fees.

8. Seaside, California

  • Annual tuition and fees: $7,043

  • Minimum hourly wage: $11

Another California city, Seaside comes in at No. 7, thanks to the state’s high $11-an-hour minimum wage and the low college costs at California State University, Monterey Bay. Tuition and fees total $7,043 a year for resident students at the state college.

Meanwhile, students earning the minimum wage for 15 hours a week would bring in $8,580 a year. After applying their income to tuition and fees, a typical student would have a surplus of $1,537 to use as they wish.

9. St. Clairsville, Ohio

  • Annual tuition and fees: $5,050

  • Minimum hourly wage: $8.30

Home to the Ohio University Eastern campus, St. Clairsville can be an affordable option for local college students looking to work their way through school. Tuition totaled $2,403 a semester for resident students in 2017-18, according to the college’s site, or $5,050 a year with fees included.

Meanwhile, Ohio students earn a minimum wage of $8.30, $1.05 more an hour than the federal minimum. Working 15 hours a week, a student would earn $6,474 in a year. With tuition and fees for Ohio University Eastern paid, that leaves $1,424 for students to cover other expenses.

10. Zanesville, Ohio

  • Annual tuition and fees: $5,076

  • Minimum hourly wage: $8.30

Students at Ohio University Zanesville get a similar steal on college costs, paying just $5,076 a year in tuition and fees. They earn the same wage but pay $26 more a year for college, resulting in a slightly lower surplus of $1,398 after paying for their schooling.

11. Durango, Colorado

  • Annual tuition and fees: $6,720

  • Minimum hourly wage: $10.20

Students can easily cover tuition and fees at the city’s four-year school, Fort Lewis College, with a minimum wage job. That’s thanks in part to the college’s low tuition costs, which totaled $6,720 for resident students in 2017-18.

But it’s also because of Colorado’s higher minimum wage. It’s $10.20 and is set to increase to $11.10 in 2019. Working 15 hours a week, a student could gross $7,956 annually — enough to cover tuition and still have $1,236 left for other college costs.

12. Brunswick, Georgia

  • Annual tuition and fees: $4,496

  • Minimum hourly wage: $7.25

College students in Brunswick can expect to be paid based on the federal minimum wage of $7.25. But that’s more than enough to cover tuition and fees at the city’s College of Coastal Georgia.

After paying their $4,496 in annual tuition and fees, students working 15 hours a week would have $1,159 remaining for other expenses.

13. Tempe, Arizona

  • Annual tuition and fees: $7,061

  • Minimum hourly wage: $10.50

Tempe is home to two colleges. Arizona State University tuition and fees total $10,522 a year, while Harrison Middleton University charges $3,600 annually. Between the two, college costs in Tempe average $7,061.

Students at both colleges will enjoy the state’s higher minimum wage of $10.50 per hour. With $8,190 in annual earnings, a student in Tempe will have $1,129 remaining after paying the average tuition in the city.

14. Ellensburg, Washington

  • Annual tuition and fees: $7,849

  • Minimum hourly wage: $11.50

The third Washington city on this list, students in Ellensburg can earn the state’s minimum wage that’s $4.25 more an hour than the federal minimum.

This is high enough to pay the $7,849 annual tuition and fees at Central Washington University, with $1,121 remaining to cover other college and living expenses.

15. Arcata, California

  • Annual tuition and fees: $7,492

  • Minimum hourly wage: $11

A student who works 15 hours a week earning the $11 minimum wage in California would bring in $8,580 after a year.

This is enough to cover annual in-state tuition and fees at Humboldt State University, with a surplus of $1,088.

16. Bellingham, Washington

  • Annual tuition and fees: $7,933

  • Minimum hourly wage: $11.50

Another Washington city makes the list, thanks in part to the $11.50 minimum wage that would result in $8,970 a year working 15 hours a week.

After paying the $7,933 in annual tuition and fees for Western Washington University, a resident student would have $1,037 left to cover remaining college and living expenses.

17. Havre, Montana

  • Annual tuition and fees: $5,480

  • Minimum hourly wage: $8.30

Montana’s minimum wage is $8.30, giving its students a leg up on paying their way through college.

Those who work 15 hours a week will gross $6,474 in annual earnings, which can more than cover the costs at Montana State University-Northern. In fact, students could do so and pocket $994 for other costs.

18. Dillon, Montana

  • Annual tuition and fees: $5,502

  • Minimum hourly wage: $8.30

Students in Dillon benefit from a similar situation to Havre, as the minimum wage is also $8.30.

When using earnings to pay for tuition at The University of Montana Western, a typical student could do so with a surplus of $972.

19. Bowie, Maryland

  • Annual tuition and fees: $8,063

  • Minimum hourly wage: $11.50

Bowie is another city where students can earn the higher $11.50 minimum wage set in Prince George’s County.

This boost in pay means a minimum wage worker in Bowie would net $8,970 a year working 15 hours a week. That’s enough to cover tuition at Bowie State University and have $907 left in funds.

20. Rohnert Park, California

  • Annual tuition and fees: $7,724

  • Minimum hourly wage: $11

Last on this list is Rohnert Park, home to Sonoma State University. The college’s lower tuition and fees total $7,724 a year for in-state students.

That’s $856 below what a student would earn in a year by working 15 hours a week while earning California’s $11 minimum wage.

41 U.S. cities where student wages cover college costs


Overall, these rankings underline the importance of considering costs and local wages when choosing an affordable college.

When combined with lower tuition costs, earning a higher minimum wage or finding a well-paying college job can make a huge difference for students. It can help students pay more of their costs out of pocket and rely less on student loans.

The top 20 cities aren’t the only places where college students can cover college costs with a minimum wage part-time job. Here is the full list of the 41 U.S. cities where a student’s income from such a job would exceed their total tuition and fees.

Ranking City Annual tuition and fees Minimum wage Annual wages (15 hours a week)
Income remaining after tuition
1 Cheney, Wash. $7,110 $11.50 $8,970 $1,860
2 Adelphi, Md. $7,176 $11.50 $8,970 $1,794
3 Hays, Kan. $4,007 $7.25 $5,655 $1,648
4 Rexburg, Idaho $4,018 $7.25 $5,655 $1,637
5 Olympia, Wash. $7,416 $11.50 $8,970 $1,554
6 Turlock, Calif. $7,038 $11.00 $8,580 $1,542
7 Dalton, Ga. $4,116 $7.25 $5,655 $1,539
8 Seaside, Calif. $7,043 $11.00 $8,580 $1,537
9 St. Clairsville, Ohio $5,050 $8.30 $6,474 $1,424
10 Zanesville, Ohio $5,076 $8.30 $6,474 $1,398
11 Durango, Colo. $6,720 $10.20 $7,956 $1,236
12 Brunswick, Ga. $4,496 $7.25 $5,655 $1,159
13 Tempe, Ariz. $7,061 $10.50 $8,190 $1,129
14 Ellensburg, Wash. $7,849 $11.50 $8,970 $1,121
15 Arcata, Calif. $7,492 $11.00 $8,580 $1,088
16 Bellingham, Wash. $7,933 $11.50 $8,970 $1,037
17 Havre, Mont. $5,480 $8.30 $6,474 $994
18 Dillon, Mont. $5,502 $8.30 $6,474 $972
19 Bowie, Md. $8,063 $11.50 $8,970 $907
20 Rohnert Park, Calif. $7,724 $11.00 $8,580 $856
21 Burton, Ohio $5,664 $8.30 $6,474 $810
22 Las Cruces, N.M. $6,461 $9.20 $7,176 $715
23 Celina, Ohio $5,842 $8.30 $6,474 $632
24 St. George, Utah $5,080 $7.25 $5,655 $575
25 Jordanville, N.Y. $7,550 $10.40 $8,112 $562
26 Durham, N.C. $5,100 $7.25 $5,655 $555
27 Laurel, Miss. $5,115 $7.25 $5,655 $540
28 Elizabeth City, N.C. $5,140 $7.25 $5,655 $515
29 Fayetteville, N.C. $5,208 $7.25 $5,655 $447
30 Laramie, Wyo. $5,217 $7.25 $5,655 $438
31 Joplin, Mo. $5,700 $7.85 $6,123 $423
32 Orange Beach, Ala. $5,280 $7.25 $5,655 $375
33 Tallahassee, Fla. $6,146 $8.25 $6,435 $289
34 Wilberforce, Ohio $6,246 $8.30 $6,474 $228
35 Wayne, Neb. $6,824 $9.00 $7,020 $196
36 Buzzards Bay, Mass. $8,398 $11.00 $8,580 $182
37 Provo-Orem, Utah $5,556 $7.25 $5,655 $99
38 Pensacola, Fla. $6,359 $8.25 $6,435 $76
39 Machias, Maine $7,726 $10.00 $7,800 $74
40 Gainesville, Fla. $6,381 $8.25 $6,435 $54
41 Lawrenceville, Ga. $5,634 $7.25 $5,655 $21

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