May 30, 2012 | Making Sen$e

Can You Still Work Your Way Through College?

By Paul Solman, Elizabeth Shell, Justin Myers and Vanessa Dennis

Note: This calculator assumes 18 weeks for summer and breaks, 32 weeks per school year and 2 weeks of vacation. A previous version made different assumptions.

In researching the growing amount of college loan debt that students are taking on as academic sticker prices steadily increase, we wondered: Is it still possible to graduate without debt?

In the calculator at left, you can plug in your own hourly income as well as hours worked over the school year and during summer plus whether you attend a private or public college for a two-year or four-year program. Or, you can use our assumptions of the federal minimum wage -- currently $7.25 an hour -- with a part-time job of 20 hours per week during the school year and a full-time job of 40 hours per week over the summer. Mousing over the lines shows you the college costs for that year and your earnings. The difference shows whether you've made enough money or if you'll need more to foot the bill.

Looking at four-year public institutions and using our assumptions for hours worked and income, average college costs actually could have been paid for until the 2000-2001 school year. After that, a student would have to work more hours or make more per hour to keep up.

But if a student chose a private school, minimum wage on average would never have covered college costs. And even if a student worked full time throughout the year, he or she would only have earned enough to pay a private institution for the 1978-79 and 1979-80 school years.

All figures are adjusted for 2012 dollars. To determine the gap between what could be earned and what an education would cost, we compiled tuition, fees, room and board. We did not include factors such as books, transportation, health insurance, food and other cost of living expenses as these can vary wildly depending on geographic location, school, personal preference and class requirements.

Read More