How Many Hours It Takes to Work Your Way Through College in Each State

 August 3, 2021
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Earning a college degree is a financially challenging pursuit for many students, partly due to rising tuition costs. According to a 2020 College Board report, tuition, fees, and room and board costs have risen 15% at public four-year institutions and 17% at private four-year institutions over the past decade.

Students who work their way through college to reduce their student debt after graduation have to put in more hours to keep up with climbing education costs.

In Student Loan Hero’s latest study, analysts uncover how many estimated hours, on average, students need to work to cover their full college education costs. Researchers provide breakdowns by state and institution type — here are the findings.

Key findings

  • More full-time college students were employed 10, 20 and 30 years ago. In 1991, 2001 and 2011, 47.2%, 47.1% and 41.3%, respectively, of full-time students were employed, compared with 41.1% in 2017 — the latest year for which data is available. Meanwhile, 82.2% of part-time students worked in 2017, down from 85.9% in 1991.
  • Vermont colleges require the most hours for students to work their way through attending a public, in-state four-year school. Vermont students would need to work an average of 1,769 hours to pay for the combined cost of tuition, fees, and room and board for a year.
  • Wyoming universities offer the best opportunities for in-state students who want to work their way through college without debt. In the Cowboy State, students would need to work an average of 793 hours — less than half the time needed in Vermont — to pay for tuition, fees, and room and board at a public, in-state four-year college.
  • Those planning to attend a public school as an out-of-state student or a private university should be ready to put in more hours to work their way through college. While the average across the 50 states to pay for a public, in-state four-year college is 1,256 hours, that number jumps to 2,223 at public, out-of-state four-year colleges and 2,444 at private four-year universities.
  • If you mix in sleeping and being a full-time student, you’re running out of time in the day. If you add eight hours of sleep daily and the time it takes to be a full-time student, students would spend 5,376 on these activities alone. For reference, there are 8,760 hours in a year.

Fewer students are working their way through college

Over the past 30 years, the number of full-time college students working their way through college has decreased. In 1991, 47.2% of full-time students were employed, but that number dropped to 41.1% by 2017 — the latest year for which data is available.

The federal data also breaks down the hours worked per week by students. In 1991, 2001, 2011 and 2017, the percentage of full-time students who worked less than 20 hours a week was 20.9%, 17.4%, 15.8%, and 15.6%, respectively.

The percentage of full-time students who worked 20 to 34 hours a week experienced a slight increase between 1991 (19.8%) and 2001 (20.6%). During this same period, full-time students working 35 hours or more — generally considered full-time employment — shot up from 5.6% (1991) to 7.9% (2001). By 2017, a majority of employed full-time students worked between 20 and 34 hours a week.

Percentage of hours worked by full-time students
Less than 20 hours 20 to 34 hours 35 or more hours
1991 20.9% 19.8% 5.6%
2001 17.4% 20.6% 20.6%
2011 15.8% 20.6% 20.6%
2017 15.6% 17.2% 7.1%

The data found that the percentage of employed part-time students doubled that of employed full-time students. In 2017, 41.1% of full-time students were employed, compared with 82.2% of part-time students.

Since 1991, the percentage of part-time students working 35 or more hours a week has shifted to a slightly more balanced breakdown. In 1991, 8.2% of part-time students worked less than 20 hours, 25.4% worked 20 to 34 hours and a majority of those employed (51%) worked 35 or more hours a week.

As of the latest 2017 data, fewer part-time students (35.8%) worked 35 or more hours a week. In that same year, 11% percent of part-time students worked less than 20 hours per week, while 34.3% worked 20 to 34 hours a week. And fewer part-time students (82.2%) were employed in general, compared with 85.9% of working part-time students in 1991.

Percentage of hours worked by part-time students
Less than 20 hours 20 to 34 hours 35 or more hours
1991 8.2% 25.4% 51.0%
2001 8.0% 25.8% 48.9%
2011 9.7% 48.9% 48.9%
2017 11.0% 34.3% 35.8%

Student Loan Hero senior writer Andrew Pentis notes that various factors are affecting the decrease in student employment.

“There’s a growing movement across the country to increase the minimum wage,” Pentis says. “We’re all growing accustomed to seeing ‘now hiring’ signs in the windows of service-oriented businesses that have historically employed college-age workers at less than the minimum wage. Teens and 20-somethings could be choosing to sit out during this move away from below-minimum wage work.”

Pentis also points out that students might have decided that — based on the math and access to financial aid, like student loans — working through isn’t worth detracting from their studies.

“Given the amount of hours the study is showing, many students and families may not benefit from working through college the way that students of past generations did,” Pentis says. “The rising cost of college, coupled with stagnating wages for entry-level positions, makes working through school a less advantageous strategy than ever before. There’s no mistaking that.”

If you plan to work your way through college, Vermont may not be your first choice

Students who plan on working their way through college will have to clock in more hours in certain states. According to the study, in-state students in Vermont attending public four-year institutions will have to work the most hours to pay their way through school. Students in Vermont will need to work 1,769 hours a year — on average — to pay for one year of school.

To arrive at this number, Student Loan Hero analysts calculated the average cost for in-state students to attend a public four-year college in Vermont, which is $28,681 a year. The average high school graduate in the state earns an average of $16.21 an hour. Considering that full-time employment is typically regarded as 2,000 hours a year, Vermont students would need to work a nearly full-time work schedule each year to earn enough for their annual tuition cost.

Vermont has lower-than-average hourly earnings among high school graduates, not to mention it’s the state with the highest average tuition rate in the U.S. These two factors put the state in the No. 1 spot for most hours needed to work through school.

Below is the top-10 list of states with the most work hours necessary to pay your way through school. Four states — Vermont, Pennsylvania, New Jersey and New Hampshire — are in the Northeast, while there are two apiece in the Midwest, South and West.

Where students need to work the most hours to pay their way through college
Rank State Tuition Hourly earnings Hours of work
1 Vermont $28,681 $16.21 1,769
2 Pennsylvania $26,287 $16.28 1,614
3 Illinois $25,469 $16.15 1,577
4 New Jersey $27,481 $17.52 1,568
5 Virginia $24,492 $16.18 1,513
6 South Carolina $23,113 $15.30 1,511
7 Michigan $23,376 $15.51 1,507
8 New Hampshire $28,145 $18.91 1,488
9 Arizona $23,105 $15.69 1,473
10 Oregon $22,585 $15.73 1,436
Note: Data based on tuition at public, in-state four-year colleges

For the most bang for your back, consider Wyoming

Wyoming requires the fewest hours to work your way through college. At an average in-state tuition of $14,639 and average high school graduate hourly earnings of $18.46, Wyoming students only need to work 793 hours per year — that’s less than half of the work hours annually compared to in-state Vermont students.

Six of the 10 states where students need to work the fewest hours are in the West — Wyoming, Utah, Idaho, Washington, Nevada and Alaska. Wyoming and Utah, which rank first and second, both have low tuition rates and high hourly earnings compared to other states on the list.

Where students need to work the fewest hours to pay their way through college
Rank State Tuition Hourly earnings Hours of work
1 Wyoming $14,639 $18.46 793
2 Utah $14,389 $17.33 830
3 North Dakota $16,668 $17.17 971
4 Florida $15,059 $15.03 1,002
5 Wisconsin $17,172 $16.77 1,024
6 Idaho $16,134 $15.70 1,028
7 Oklahoma $16,732 $15.88 1,053
8 Washington $19,272 $18.22 1,058
9 Nevada $17,503 $16.44 1,065
10 Alaska $19,563 $18.26 1,071
Note: Data based on tuition at public, in-state four-year colleges

Full rankings

It’ll take more work hours if you’re attending a public college as an out-of-stater or a private college

In addition to identifying the number of hours it takes to work through college in each state, Student Loan Hero analysts determined the average hours needed by various institution types. Below is the average hours per year to pay for school at each institution type:

  • Public, in-state four-year college: 1,256 hours
  • Public, out-of-state four-year college: 2,223 hours
  • Private four-year college: 2,444 hours

“If you’re an in-state student, or at least attending a college or university in your region, you can score an in-state tuition rate that’s likely steeply discounted from what your out-of-state peers pay,” Pentis says. “After all, it’s these students’ families who are, in many aspects, footing the bill for these schools via state tax funding. It’s also an enticement for a state’s top students to stay in-state instead of heading elsewhere.”

Until school ends, finding other time in the day

For some people, it can feel like there isn’t enough time in the day to get through everything that needs to get done. Students who work their way through college on top of a full-time course load and get a healthy eight hours of sleep (or, at least, eight hours worth of power naps) know this feeling firsthand.

The study calculated how many hours it takes to manage these three essential activities as a working student. Calculations estimated it takes 1,200 hours to complete a full-time academic year, and based sleep on the recommended eight hours daily.

In one year, there are a total of 8,760 hours. Below are how many hours, annually, these activities take up by institution type:

  • Public, in-state four-year college: 5,376
  • Public, out-of-state four-year college: 6,343
  • Private, four-year college: 6,564

3 things to think about when deciding whether to work your way through college

If you’re unsure whether working your way through college is worthwhile, here are three considerations that Pentis suggests:

  • Determine how much income you’ll need. See what your current cash flow is to figure out how much additional income you’ll need, after financial aid. Make sure to account for tuition and fees, in addition to other expenses, like books, supplies and living expenses. “If you have a monthly shortfall of only a few hundred dollars, for example, you might simply look for ways to cut down on spending, perhaps by skipping the on-campus meal plan or renting instead of buying textbooks,” Pentis says. “If your shortfall is much higher and you don’t have the financial aid to cover the gap, however, you might investigate employment opportunities.”
  • Explore on- and off-campus job opportunities. Calculate whether a prospective job is enough to fill the gap for your remaining expenses. Consider reaching out to your career services office to learn about employment opportunities that might offer a flexible schedule to working students.
  • Start with fewer work hours. Starting college can be an overwhelming experience, especially for first-time college students. If you can, use the first couple of months to see how well you manage your existing academic course load without being employed. This will give you a better sense of how much work you can take on without sacrificing your education.

Published in Research