Report: Make Higher Education Affordable

At What Cost?

The Price That Working Students Pay For A College Education
Released by: U.S. PIRG

A college education is one of the best investments of a lifetime. Bachelor degree recipients earn 80% more than high school graduates, or $1,000,000 over a lifetime in the workforce.1 Yet, a higher education is not simply a means to achieve higher earning potential, it should also be a life enriching experience. Colleges and universities foster both academic and personal development – from community service and civic engagement, where students learn how to become active participants in democracy, to team athletics, where students gain valuable leadership experience.

However, as college costs rise many students are turning to working long hours to finance their education. Nearly half of all full-time working students are working enough hours to hurt their academic achievement and the overall quality of their education. At the same time the majority of these students (63%) reported that they would not be able to attend college if they did not work.

In recent decades as college costs have risen federal grant-aid has failed to keep pace. The average grant award per student, as a percentage of average tuition and fees at a typical public four-year institution, has dropped by nearly one-third since 1982,2 and the typical student now graduates with $16,928 in federal student loan debt.3

Grant aid has helped many students to minimize the negative impact of working and borrowing, but still lags behind what is necessary to provide equal access to a quality education. The students who are most likely to suffer the effects of excessive working are also more likely to take on student debt to finance their education. There is also significant evidence to show that working not only impacts the quality of education, but also persistence.

Despite these findings, students are likely to face even greater hardship in the future. Gloomy state and federal budget forecasts have already begun to negatively impact tuition at public institutions and the availability of federal grant aid. In order to ensure that access to and the quality of a college education is not further compromised, it is our recommendation that state and federal lawmakers should prioritize funding for higher education. Specifically, we call for increases in student grant aid at the federal level. Funding need-based grant aid is a proven strategy for providing access to a college education and minimizing the negative impacts of excessive working and college debt.

Key Findings:

• Forty-six percent (46%) of all full-time working students work 25 or more hours per week.

• Forty-two percent (42%) of these students reported that working hurt their grades.

• Fifty-three percent (53%) of all full-time working students who work 25 or more hours per week reported that employment limited their class schedule, and 38% said that work limited their class choice.

• Sixty-three percent (63%) of all full-time working students who work 25 or more hours per week reported that they would not be able to afford college if they did not work.

• One in five full-time working students works 35 or more hours per week.


1 The College Board. 2001. Trends in Student Aid. Washington, D.C.
2 Ibid.
3 The State PIRGs’ Higher Education Project. 2002. The Burden of Borrowing: A Report on the Rising Rates of Student Loan Debt. Washington, D.C.

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