Heatmap of hours required to work each week to pay your way through college

Is it Possible to Pay your Way Through College in 2019?

Choosing a college is of the most important decisions you make in your life. Your choice influences everything from the friends you make, to the career path you choose and, often, the place you live after you graduate.

Estimate your hours:


In/Out of State:

On/Off Campus:

Perhaps most importantly, it will determine how much money you spend over the next four years of your life and how much loan debt you will need to pay off once you get into the real world. Adjusted for inflation, the cost (tuition and housing) of attending a public, four-year school has increased by 259% over the last 40 years, so chances are you’ll have at least a little bit of debt.

But you can get a job and pay your pay through school, right? We’ve all had an older relative tell us this at one point or another. They did it back in their day, so you can too!

Coming out of school debt-free sounds great, so we at TextbookRush decided to dive in and take a closer look at how to do it.

Can you really still pay your way through college?

To start, we looked at whether or not our relatives were telling us the truth. Turns out, they were. For example, despite a minimum wage of only $2.00/hour at the time, a student attending college beginning in 1974 could have paid for their tuition and housing by working a part-time job for approximately 27.5 hours per week. Add in 12 hours a week to that schedule for courses and you get a full-time job. It’s not the easiest schedule, but certainly manageable.

Unfortunately, it’s not so easy these days. In fact, it’s really, really difficult. Here’s a quick overview of the 10 hardest states to pay your way through college:

  • Pennsylvania
  • New Hampshire
  • Virginia
  • Indiana
  • South Carolina
  • Louisiana
  • Deleware
  • Tennessee
  • Kentucky
  • Alabama

Surprised? You might expect to see states with high tuition costs like Vermont and Rhode Island up at the top, but a student’s ability to pay for their education depends on more than just the cost of that education; how much money they are able to make is also an important factor.

Keep reading to learn more about how we did the math and why it’s becoming so difficult for students to cover their costs as they go.

How We Calculated the Hardest States to Pay Your Way through College

Nothing feels better than walking out of your graduation ceremony with a shiny new degree and no debt. Ideally, hard work and dedication would be the key to both. But since not all states are created equally, we determined exactly how much a student in each state would need to work in order to pay for their tuition and housing, leveraging publicly available data from the NCSL and College Tuition Compare. Here are the criteria we considered:

  • In-state tuition for the state (lower is better)
  • On-campus housing costs for the state (lower is better)
  • Minimum wage pay in the state (higher is better)
  • Weeks in a school year a student can work (30 weeks: 15 per semester)

After determining the key metrics for each state, we calculated the number of hours per week a student would have to work to pay for tuition and housing using the following formula:

(Average In-State Tuition/State Hourly Minimum Wage*)

A few important notes on minimum wage before we continue:

  1. Four states (Minnesota, Montana, Ohio, and Oklahoma) have multiple minimum wages, usually one that’s lower for very small businesses and one that’s higher for average-to-large-sized businesses. For the sake of simplicity, we used the higher number in those cases.
  2. Two states (Georgia and Wyoming) have a minimum wage below the federal minimum of $7.25. Minimum wage workers in these states are eligible for the federal minimum thanks to the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), so we used that number over the state minimum wage.
  3. Five states (Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Carolina, and Tennessee) do not have a state-issued minimum wage. For these states, we also used the federal minimum of $7.25.

With all the disclaimers out of the way, read on to see how much students have to work to pay for school. At the bottom is a breakdown of every state, including figures for in-state and out-of-state students.

1. Pennsylvania


In-State Tuition: $11,416
On-Campus Housing Cost: $14,597
Minimum Wage: $7.25
Hours Per Week to Pay: 119.60

Ah, Pennsylvania. With the second-highest in-state tuition in the country and the lowest minimum wage allowable by federal law, it’s no surprise they ended up number one on our list (and not in a good way). Students brave enough to try to pay for their tuition and housing in the Keystone State will have to work the equivalent of three full-time jobs on top of their schoolwork to break even.

2. New Hampshire

New Hampshire

In-State Tuition: $10,231
On-Campus Housing Cost: $14,702
Minimum Wage: $7.25
Hours Per Week to Pay: 114.63

Different state, same problem. The combination of a high tuition and a rock-bottom minimum wage lay the groundwork for a tough life if you’re a student paying your way through school in New Hampshire. On the bright side, you do get five hours back each week compared to Pennsylvania students. We’d recommend using those to sleep.

3. Virginia


In-State Tuition: $8,317
On-Campus Housing Cost: $13,805
Minimum Wage: $7.25
Hours Per Week to Pay: 101.71

One of the most historic states in the country, Virginia has plenty of great schools to offer potential students. Too bad it’ll be impossible to come out of school debt-free without a scholarship or other outside help. Things are looking better than our top two, but “better” relative to “terrible” is still not a good place to be.

4. Indiana


In-State Tuition: $8,040
On-Campus Housing Cost: $12,939
Minimum Wage: $7.25
Hours Per Week to Pay: 96.46

Expensive housing and a low minimum wage strike again in Indiana. Under 100 hours a week, though? Now we’re talking! Home of Purdue and Notre Dame, students here only have to work two and a half times that of a full-time employee to cover their tuition and housing costs. A small price to pay for no debt at graduation, said no one ever.

5. South Carolina

South Carolina

In-State Tuition: $7,906
On-Campus Housing Cost: $12,605
Minimum Wage: $7.25
Hours Per Week to Pay: 94.30

South Carolina has a lot to offer potential students. From historic cities and battlegrounds to warm beaches and great shopping in places like Charleston, there’s something here for everyone. Unfortunately, the state falls short for students whose wallets are a bit tight. We don’t know about you, but 94 hours a week seems like a bit too much in our humble opinion.

6. Louisiana


In-State Tuition: $6,353
On-Campus Housing Cost: $13,892
Minimum Wage: $7.25
Hours Per Week to Pay: 93.08

Rapper Lil Wayne, legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong, and American Idol judge Randy Jackson all call this state home. And while Louisiana is middle of the pack in terms of tuition costs, it’s the low minimum wage that does them in. Students here would need to work a staggering 93 hours a week to pay for their education. So, as Randy would say, that’s gonna be a no from us, dawg.

7. Delaware


In-State Tuition: $8,817
On-Campus Housing Cost: $15,177
Minimum Wage: $8.75
Hours Per Week to Pay: 91.41

Up to now, every state in the top 10 has been held back thanks to their low minimum wage. Delaware finally breaks this trend with a modest increase to $8.75/hour, a positive for sure. Why, then, are they still in the top 10? At $8,817 a year, Delaware has the fifth-highest in-state tuition in the country. Add in housing costs that also land top 5 and it’s the perfect recipe for a broke, overworked student.

8. Tennessee


In-State Tuition: $6,336
On-Campus Housing Cost: $12,962
Minimum Wage: $7.25
Hours Per Week to Pay: 88.73

Tennessee actually lands right about in the middle when it comes to in-state tuition and on-campus housing costs. Logic would suggest that wouldn’t make it too difficult for a student to cover those costs, but in reality, it’s a good example of just how expensive college is these days. A $7.25 minimum wage doesn’t help either, leaving students here on the hook for over 88 hours a week if they want to pay their way and graduate debt-free.

9. Kentucky


In-State Tuition: $6,190
On-Campus Housing Cost: $12,278
Minimum Wage: $7.25
Hours Per Week to Pay: 84.91

The Bluegrass State is famous for the world’s longest cave (Mammoth Cave), the Kentucky Derby, and, of course, Kentucky Fried Chicken. If you’re a student looking to attend college here, you’ll probably end up eating a lot of KFC to save the money you’ll need for school. Better yet, since you’ll need to work around 85 hours a week anyway, just work at KFC so you can save even more with your employee discount.

10. Alabama


In-State Tuition: $6,719
On-Campus Housing Cost: $11,735
Minimum Wage: $7.25
Hours Per Week to Pay: 84.85

As it turns out, Alabama first introduced a state sales tax in 1937 to help fund education. Unfortunately, that hasn’t done much to lower the cost of higher education in 2019. You would need to work nearly 85 hours a week here to cover your tuition and housing. On the bright side, Alabama was the state that first introduced Mardi Gras to the western world, so that might help you forget about your debt for a day or so.

Closing Thoughts

So what have we learned? College is expensive, housing is more expensive, and minimum wage just can’t support a student trying to pay their way through school anymore.

Right or wrong, college has become a significant financial investment that requires outside help from family, scholarships, or loans to help you pay. We highlighted tuition and housing costs since they account for most of the expenses, but students today also have to account for other costs in the form of parking passes, meal plans, and ordering college textbooks each semester. While a college degree is valuable, it’s more important than ever to put a lot of thought into your career path and do your research when choosing a school. And if finances are a concern, there are always some schools that offer free tuition.

Curious where your state landed? Need to pay out-of-state tuition or thinking about living off-campus? Check out the full rankings below to see how much you would need to work to pay your education bills.

StateTotal In-State On-Campus (hrs/wk)Total In-State Off-Campus (hrs/wk)Total Out-of-State On-Campus (hrs/wk)Total Out-of-State Off-Campus (hrs/wk)
New Hampshire114.63116.69157.15159.20
South Carolina94.3095.87125.12126.68
New Jersey81.7592.49102.24112.98
Rhode Island81.0869.31120.31108.55
North Dakota78.0582.9787.9792.89
North Carolina76.1476.83110.11110.80
South Dakota74.9974.3174.4373.75
West Virginia68.7264.8493.0089.12
New Mexico66.1274.8483.4892.20
New York62.7166.8982.8487.02


– College Tuition Compare: College Tuition and Housing Costs (2018)
– National Conference of State Legislatures: Minimum Wage in Each State
– CollegeBoard: Average Tuition and Housing Costs Over Time
– U.S. Department of Labor: Fair Labor Standards Act Overview

About the author

Alison Blankenship
Senior Marketing Manager
I graduated Cum Laude from The Ohio State University (Go Bucks!) with degrees in Marketing and Communications. I’ve been working in the textbook industry for over 10 years, and my work has been featured by College Confidential, Mercy College of Health Sciences, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Pennsylvania Tribune, Montana Technological University, Oregon Live, and other organizations.

I’m an obsessive lover of dachshunds and a passionate reader of books. I’m an avid Pinner and poster, and I’m all over our Facebook page, Twitter account, Instagram and Pinterest.