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Student Work and Paying for College: How the Jobs Crisis Affects College Affordability

A Gedenkschrift to Randy Hodson: Working with Dignity

ISBN: 978-1-78560-727-1, eISBN: 978-1-78560-726-4

Publication date: 5 February 2016


Randy Hodson’s research on workplace inequalities and dignity at work asks vital questions about the capacity of employment to provide the resources needed to support a decent life. A decent life involves not merely the capacity to meet basic needs but also the possibility of investing in upward mobility, for example by pursuing a college degree. Rising employment inequalities and slow-growing wages in the United States over the past several decades have challenged the capacity of ordinary workers to make these investments. Yet worries about college affordability are more likely to be expressed as a concern over the price of schooling than as a concern over the returns to work. In this chapter, I conduct an historical analysis of trends in the costs of college compared to trends in wages from the 1970s to the 2000s in order to evaluate how stagnating wages affected the possibilities for paying for college, using several different data sources on college costs and wages. I focus on the question of how much money a student worker could earn toward the costs of college. I show that over time student work became a significantly less lucrative undertaking and would have covered less of the costs of college over time even if college costs had remained stable. I conclude that we must pay attention to how the jobs crisis affects a range of institutions and growing stratification in opportunity in America. As Randy Hodson argued in his voluminous research, dignity at work has far-reaching consequences for the chances of a decent life.



Support for this project provided in part by a research grant from the National Foundation for Financial Education (NEFE). The arguments and findings presented here are the author's own and do not reflect positions taken or supported by NEFE. I am indebted to Randy Hodson for so many things, including the idea for this chapter, which began in one of our many wide-ranging conversations about inequality, work, youth debt, and opportunity in America. We agreed then to put this idea in our burgeoning “future projects” file, not knowing yet how little time we would have to dig into that file. I once heard Arlo Guthrie compare songwriting to fishing, and he said that he felt badly for anyone who was downriver from Bob Dylan, who pulled so many of the best fish out of the river. Randy loved to fish and perhaps he would have liked extending that metaphor to scholarly writing as well. If the metaphor is apt, I too feel sorry for those downstream of Randy, but I’m most deeply grateful to have had the opportunity to sit for a time with him on the banks, and learn from and with a master angler.


Dwyer, R.E. (2016), "Student Work and Paying for College: How the Jobs Crisis Affects College Affordability", A Gedenkschrift to Randy Hodson: Working with Dignity (Research in the Sociology of Work, Vol. 28), Emerald Group Publishing Limited, Leeds, pp. 129-153.



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