Careers

Working your way through college is practically impossible now—but these 20 cities will give you the best odds

Washington State Capitol Legislative Building and blooming cherry trees in Olympia, Washington.
Greg Vaughn /VW PICS/UIG via Getty Images
Washington State Capitol Legislative Building and blooming cherry trees in Olympia, Washington.

It used to be possible for young people to work their way through college, but it's a nearly impossible feat for students in 2018.

When NPR's Anya Kamenetz did the math, she found that Pell-eligible college students in 1981 could fund their degree by working a minimum wage job for 16 hours a week year-round, or nine hours a day over the summer. Kamenetz estimates that a similar student today would have to work a minimum wage job for 37 hours a week year-round, or 21.2 hours a day over the summer in order to fund a college degree.

There are several reasons for this change. While the cost of college has increased dramatically, incomes have not, and the current $7.25 per hour federal minimum wage has not kept up with inflation.

But in many cities, affordable high education options and higher local minimum wage rates brings the dream of working your way through college closer to reality. Student Loan Hero released a study comparing local minimum wages to the costs of 1,500 U.S. colleges, and found that students can work their way through just 2.8 percent of schools.

But the study also identified select cities that offer students the best chances of working their way through college. Here are the 20 best cities for those trying to work their way through school, according to Student Loan Hero:

Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California
 Robert Ford | Getty Images
Sonoma State University in Rohnert Park, California

20. Rohnert Park, California

Annual tuition and fees: $7,724

Minimum hourly wage: $11.00

"Rohnert Park is home to Sonoma State University. The college's lower tuition and fees total $7,724 a year for in-state students. That's $856 below what a student would earn in a year by working 15 hours a week while earning California's $11 minimum wage."

19. Bowie, Maryland

Annual tuition and fees: $8,063

Minimum hourly wage: $11.50

"Bowie is another city where students can earn the higher $11.50 minimum wage set in Prince George's County. This boost in pay means a minimum wage worker in Bowie would net $8,970 a year working 15 hours a week. That's enough to cover tuition at Bowie State University and have $907 left in funds."

18. Dillon, Montana

Annual tuition and fees: $5,502

Minimum hourly wage: $8.30

"Students in Dillon benefit from a similar situation to Havre, as the minimum wage is also $8.30. When using earnings to pay for tuition at The University of Montana Western, a typical student could do so with a surplus of $972."

17. Havre, Montana

Annual tuition and fees: $5,480

Minimum hourly wage: $8.30

"Montana's minimum wage is $8.30, giving its students a leg up on paying their way through college. Those who work 15 hours a week will gross $6,474 in annual earnings, which can more than cover the costs at Montana State University-Northern. In fact, students could do so and pocket $994 for other costs."

16. Bellingham, Washington

Annual tuition and fees: $7,933

Minimum hourly wage: $11.50

"Several Washington cities makes the list, thanks in part to the $11.50 minimum wage that would result in $8,970 a year working 15 hours a week. After paying the $7,933 in annual tuition and fees for Western Washington University, a resident student would have $1,037 left to cover remaining college and living expenses."

15. Arcata, California

Annual tuition and fees: $7,492

Minimum hourly wage: $11.00

"A student who works 15 hours a week earning the $11 minimum wage in California would bring in $8,580 after a year. This is enough to cover annual in-state tuition and fees at Humboldt State University, with a surplus of $1,088."

14. Ellensburg, Washington

Annual tuition and fees: $7,849

Minimum hourly wage: $11.50

"One of four Washington cities on this list, students in Ellensburg can earn the state's minimum wage that's $4.25 more an hour than the federal minimum. This is high enough to pay the $7,849 annual tuition and fees at Central Washington University, with $1,121 remaining to cover other college and living expenses."

13. Tempe, Arizona

Annual tuition and fees: $7,061

Minimum hourly wage: $10.50

"Tempe is home to two colleges. Arizona State University tuition and fees total $10,522 a year, while Harrison Middleton University charges $3,600 annually. Between the two, college costs in Tempe average $7,061. Students at both colleges will enjoy the state's higher minimum wage of $10.50 per hour. With $8,190 in annual earnings, a student in Tempe will have $1,129 remaining after paying the average tuition in the city."

12. Brunswick, Georgia

Annual tuition and fees: $4,496

Minimum hourly wage: $7.25

"College students in Brunswick can expect to be paid based on the federal minimum wage of $7.25. But that's more than enough to cover tuition and fees at the city's College of Coastal Georgia. After paying their $4,496 in annual tuition and fees, students working 15 hours a week would have $1,159 remaining for other expenses."

11. Durango, Colorado

Annual tuition and fees: $6,720

Minimum hourly wage: $10.20

"Students can cover tuition and fees at the city's four-year school, Fort Lewis College, with a minimum wage job. That's thanks in part to the college's low tuition costs, which totaled $6,720 for resident students in 2017-18. But it's also because of Colorado's higher minimum wage of $10.20 which is set to increase to $11.10 in 2019. Working 15 hours a week, a student could gross $7,956 annually — enough to cover tuition and still have $1,236 left for other college costs."

Muskingum County Courthouse in Zanesville, Ohio
 benkrut | Getty Images
Muskingum County Courthouse in Zanesville, Ohio

10. Zanesville, Ohio

Annual tuition and fees: $5,076

Minimum hourly wage: $8.30

"Students at Ohio University, Zanesville get a similar steal on college costs, paying just $5,076 a year in tuition and fees. They earn a minimum wage of $8.30 resulting in a surplus of $1,398 after paying for their schooling."

9. St. Clairsville, Ohio

Annual tuition and fees: $5,050

Minimum hourly wage: $8.30

"Home to the Ohio University Eastern campus, St. Clairsville can be an affordable option for local college students looking to work their way through school. Tuition totaled $2,403 a semester for resident students in 2017-18, according to the college's site, or $5,050 a year with fees included. Meanwhile, Ohio students earn a minimum wage of $8.30, $1.05 more an hour than the federal minimum. Working 15 hours a week, a student would earn $6,474 in a year. With tuition and fees for Ohio University Eastern paid, that leaves $1,424 for students to cover other expenses."

8. Seaside, California

Annual tuition and fees: $7,043

Minimum hourly wage: $11

"Another California city, Seaside comes in at number eight thanks to the state's high ($11-an-hour) minimum wage and the low college costs at California State University, Monterey Bay. Tuition and fees total $7,043 a year for resident students at the state college. Meanwhile, students earning the minimum wage for 15 hours a week would bring in $8,580 a year. After applying their income to tuition and fees, a typical student would have a surplus of $1,537 to use as they wish."

7. Dalton, Georgia

Annual tuition and fees: $4,116

Minimum hourly wage: $7.25

"This city in Georgia is home to Dalton State College, an affordable option for students in the state pursuing a degree. The college's tuition and fees total $4,116 a year. Students earning the federal minimum wage can pay their way through school. With typical annual wages of $5,655 for working 15 hours a week, students here would have $1,539 remaining after paying tuition and fees."

6. Turlock, California

Annual tuition and fees: $7,038

Minimum hourly wage: $11

"Turlock's college students can work 15 hours a week at a minimum wage job to gross $8,580 a year, thanks to the California minimum wage set at $11 an hour. This amount comfortably covers a resident student's annual tuition and fees of $7,038 in the city's four-year school, California State University, Stanislaus. In fact, a student doing so can expect to have a little over $1,542 left to budget with after covering educational costs."

5. Olympia, Washington

Annual tuition and fees: $7,416

Minimum hourly wage: $11.50

"Next is another city in Washington — the state's capital, in fact. Olympia is home to Evergreen State College, where tuition and fees total $7,416 a year. Earning Washington's generous minimum wage of $11.50 an hour, students in Olympia would get $8,970 in gross wages each year working 15 hours a week. This is more than enough to cover the school's tuition costs out of pocket and provide a $1,554 surplus."

4. Rexburg, Idaho

Annual tuition and fees: $4,018

Minimum hourly wage: $7.25

"Rexburg matches its low minimum wage with rock-bottom tuition costs. Students attending Brigham Young University-Idaho, a private religious school and the only four-year college in town, paid $4,018 in tuition and fees for the 2017-18 school year. That's low enough that a student can pay tuition out of pocket with a minimum wage job and still have $1,637 left for other expenses."

3. Hays, Kansas

Annual tuition and fees: $4,007

Minimum hourly wage: $7.25

"Next is Hays, a college town that matches the federal minimum wage. Students here face some of the lowest costs in the nation at Fort Hays State University. The school's tuition charges totaled $4,007 in 2017-18 for students, well under the $5,655 annual earnings of a student getting minimum wage in this city. In fact, such a student could pay tuition and still come out ahead of costs by $1,648."

2. Adelphi, Maryland

Annual tuition and fees: $7,176

Minimum hourly wage: $11.50

"While Maryland has a minimum wage of $10.10 an hour, Adelphi is in Prince George's County, which has set a higher minimum of $11.50 an hour. College students here will gross the same $8,970 in part-time minimum wages as students in the No. 1 city, Cheney. Adelphi's four-year school, University of Maryland University College, also has similarly low tuition and fees. Students attending here and working part time would have $1,794 remaining after paying for college, just $66 less than their peers in Cheney."

1. Cheney, Washington

Annual tuition and fees: $7,110

Minimum hourly wage: $11.50

"Home to Eastern Washington University, Cheney makes the list largely thanks to Washington state's high minimum wage. It's currently at $11.50 an hour in 2018 and is set to increase to $12 an hour next year. Students earning even the minimum in this state can expect to earn $8,970 a year working 15 hours a week. That's more than enough to cover Eastern Washington University's tuition and fees of $7,110, with $1,860 left to help with room and board and other costs."

Cheney, Washington topped Student Loan Hero's list. In Cheney, students can make $8,970 a year working 15 hours a week and can attend Eastern Washington University where tuition and fees are just $7,110. Thanks to a $11.50 an hour minimum wage, three other cities in The Evergreen State cracked the top 20.

Adelphi, Maryland came out as the second best city for student trying to work their way through school. In Adelphi, students can earn a $10.10 an hour minimum wage and can pay $7,176 in tuition and fees to study at University of Maryland University College.

Rounding out the top three is Hays, Kansas which is home to Fort Hays State University. Fort Hays State charges students just $4,007 a year, far below the average for a public university.

Of course a favorable ratio of minimum wage to tuition cost does not mean that working your way through college is possible for all students in these cities. Student Loan Hero research does not take factors like housing, likelihood to graduate on time or tuition discount rate into consideration.

Like this story? Subscribe to CNBC Make It on YouTube!

Don't miss: