College costs vs. college jobs: The economics don’t add up


by Christine Williams

I was recently on a plane and sat next to a young woman who was returning to college for her sophomore year. During the flight, she pulled out a sandwich shop’s menu and started putting the names of sandwich combinations on index cards. Naturally, I asked her what she was doing and she said that she was starting a new job at a fast-food restaurant chain the next day. She was studying to make a good first impression.

But after talking to my seatmate, I am convinced that these jobs are a bad choice for college students today. The young woman told me that she depended on her job to make ends meet. Her college expenses were beyond her family’s means.

Jobs in the fast-food industry are a common choice for college students. For many, including me, it is their first job experience.

I worked at McDonald’s in the 1970s, just like 7 percent of my generation. I was living at home and didn’t have to rely on my minimum wage and nonexistent benefits to support myself. It wasn’t a good job by any measure, but everyone needs to start somewhere. Because fast-food jobs generally do not require previous work experience, they serve as an entry point into the labor market for many people — and, in my case, an extra incentive to stay in college.

During the past 30 years, college expenses have skyrocketed. According to the College Board, in 1980, a year of tuition at a public university was equivalent to $2,320; today, the cost is about $9,410. In my day, college costs were kept lower in part by more generous state support, according to a report in The Chronicle of Higher Education. For example, 38 percent of the budget at The University of Texas at Austin came from the state in 1987; now it’s 25 percent. As a result, in Texas, according to the Institute for College Access and Success, the class of 2013 graduated with an average loan debt of more than $25,000.

The cost of housing is also climbing sharply. The young woman on the plane said she was paying $1,500 each month to rent a two-bedroom apartment that she shared with another student, which is close to the price of an average Austin rental. They were advertising for a third roommate to help lower their costs.

The young woman told me she applied to work at the sandwich shop because she had prior experience in the industry. She worked at another fast-food sandwich chain, but she got injured on the job and quit on the advice of her doctor. She did not apply for workers’ compensation, but once she recovered, her employer refused to rehire her. At that previous job, she had worked up to assistant manager, which provided a small increase in wages to $7.50 per hour but required many more hours of work. She said that her grades suffered as a result.

These details point to exactly the problem: The economics do not add up. Working 20 hours a week will not cover her portion of rent, putting pressure on her to work longer hours. College students such as this woman are then derailed from pursuing their educational goals. After all, she was not studying biology or physics or sociology on the plane. She was studying sandwiches.

It’s true that incomes have not kept up with inflation, so one could argue that virtually all workers deserve a raise. I agree. But we must focus specially on students. Some low-wage employers justify the current low minimum wage by contending that their workers don’t really “need” the money because they are students who are not dependent on their jobs for their livelihoods. But in today’s world, students do need the money. And if we are going to treat fast-food jobs as a stepping stone to better jobs, then wages must be high enough to cover the cost of decent housing and the cost of education to prepare workers for better jobs.

Fast-food workers need a raise. The labor conditions that may have made sense for my baby boomer generation are completely out of touch with the needs of the millennial generation. On this Labor Day, let’s remember that all workers deserve a wage that covers the rising costs of education and housing.

Christine Williams is a professor of sociology at The University of Texas at Austin. She is the author of Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality.

A version of this article was published by The Dallas Morning News.

Image: Annette Bernhardt via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).


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