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Late Night: First They Came for the Bootstraps

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You can’t work your way through school anymore: 

Working one’s way through a public university in four years with a minimum-wage summer job and part-time campus work study — with little to no family assistance or need-based financial aid — is an outdated ideal of previous generations.

It’s virtually impossible today, if you do the math, and consider that tuition at four-year UW campuses has steadily risen above the rate of inflation since 1987, while state support has lagged below inflation since 1980. The diverging curves reflect a national trend of a dramatic shift in who covers the majority of cost for a college education: students and their families, instead of taxpayers.

Students today are paying a much higher share of the cost than students 40 years ago, when a family could have sent three kids to UW-Madison for what it costs to send one kid today, adjusted for inflation.

In 1978, a UW-Madison student paying his or her own way, without any help, had to earn $2,362. It could be done at minimum wage by working full-time through the summer and about 10 hours a week through the academic year, or a total 891 hours.

Today, a full-time UW-Madison student going it alone couldn’t physically work enough hours at minimum wage to earn $18,402 for tuition, fees, room and board. It would take 2,538 hours, or about 50 hours per week for 50 weeks.

So work two jobs. I can hear them saying it, the bootstrap people. So work three. So save every single penny you ever earn. Don’t eat lunch. Don’t eat dinner. Don’t go to the movies. Don’t buy yourself a prom dress or a new shirt. Don’t put gas in your car. Don’t put gas in your mom’s car. Don’t drive anywhere. Don’t buy books. Don’t have cable. Sit in your room or your apartment and think, think about how if you spend even one red cent in your teenage years on a cup of coffee, you will never be able to go to STATE SCHOOL. And then get up the next day and go to work again.

And at the end of that, when you worn thin as the sole of a marathoner’s shoe, when you have absolutely nothing left at all to give and are probably addicted to speed of some kind, THEN we’ll let you go to school, where you’ll be expected to compete with people who, instead of having four jobs and basically a mortgage before they turned 18, had extra credit and private tutors and time to learn instruments and read poetry and play four sports. I mean, fucking hell. Even if you make the money, what are you supposed to do then?

Work a miracle, I suppose. There’s always an anecdote with these people. I knew a kid who … Yeah, and the presence of an exception IMPLIES THE EXISTENCE OF A RULE.

I’m not insensitive to the idea that laziness gets you nowhere, and that you have to work for what you say you want, but not only could I not afford to put msyelf through school at these prices even my parents couldn’t have afforded it, with what they made when I went to college. And this is a public university, which as I was reminded once — when I applied for a job at an elite paper that rhymes with SCHMIBUNE  — is considered inferior in the minds of many. This is what you should be able to hope for in a basic situation. This is not the Ivy League.

Nobody can have nice things anymore.


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Allison Hantschel

Allison Hantschel

Allison Hantschel is a 10-year veteran of the newspaper business. She publishes First Draft, a writing and politics blog, with her partners Holden, Jude and Scout. She is the author of the books Chicago's Historic Irish Pubs (2011, Arcadia Publishing, with Mike Danahey) and It Doesn’t End With Us: The Story of the Daily Cardinal, about a great liberal journalism institution (2007, Heritage Books). She also edited the anthology “Special Plans: The Blogs on Douglas Feith and the Faulty Intelligence That Led to War” (2005, William, James & Co.) Her work has appeared in the Chicago Sun-Times, the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, the Daily Southtown, Sirens Magazine, and Alternet. She lives in Chicago with her husband, two ferrets, and approximately 60 tons of books.