According to CNBC, in 1987 tuition at a four-year public university cost about $3,190/year in 2017 dollars. I created a chart above using Tableau to track the whole history of minimum wage since FDR's New Deal. In 1987, you could pay off your tuition on a minimum wage job in about 449 hours, before taxes. That is 8.6 hours per week.
A four-year public university in 2017 costs about $9,970/year. According to the chart below it would take 1,375 hours, before taxes. That is roughly 26 hours per week.
The trend line, which creates a fair historical baseline looking at the full history, says the current national minimum wage should be around $9.00. This is well below the $15 that some people are seeking, but we also do have to consider this is a national number. Midtown Manhattan isn't the same place as rural West Virginia when it comes to how far you can stretch a dollar.
In fact, only three years (1997, 2009, 2010) fall above the trend line in my lifetime. If minimum wage got bumped to that it would eliminate about 200/hours of work per year for a college student trying to pay their way through. With numbers like these it is no wonder why many students opt to think long-term and pad their resume for a career rather than working a regular low-paying job. It comes down to simple risk vs. reward.
To see the source of the data that I got online adjusted by year, click on the file below.
About the Author
Andy Rupert is a Penn State (B.A. John Curley Center for Sports Journalism 08') and a Southern Miss (M.S. Sport Management 09'). He has spent his whole career working in sports and tourism digital marketing and metrics.