Spotlight Exclusives

To Help Low-Wage Working Women, Make College Affordable

commentary commentary, posted on

The plight of low-income workers, which has gained increasing media attention in recent months, is especially relevant to women and their families. Almost two-thirds of minimum wage workers are female, and the lack of flexibility in many of these jobs is especially burdensome for working mothers. Undoubtedly, there is much we should be doing to improve working conditions in low-wage occupationsincluding a higher minimum wage, earned sick time, and better scheduling practices. But we must also ensure that hardworking women and other low-wage workers have realistic pathways to something better. For many, that pathway is a college education.

Research shows that a woman with an associate۪s degree earns 28 percent more, and a woman with a bachelor۪s degree earns 88 percent more, than a woman with only a high school diploma. With a college degree, workers who struggle in retail, fast food, or other jobs that don۪t pay enough to cover the bills could qualify for careers with good wages and benefits. But for too many, the cost of college is an insurmountable barrier.

College used to be within reach for low-wage workers. In 1970, a full-time minimum wage worker in Illinois, where Women Employed is based, could earn enough to pay for a year of tuition at a public university in just 5.4 weeks. A prospective student working at a low-wage job could earn enough in one summer to cover their tuition for the year, and the rest of their earnings could go toward the other necessary expenses that keep a family afloat.

This is far from the reality today. Since 1970, college has become increasingly less affordable. States and the federal government have dramatically decreased their investments in public colleges and universities, causing tuition rates to skyrocket. Compounding the problem, minimum wage hasn۪t kept up with inflation, so a minimum wage worker is earning less, relatively speaking, than he or she would have in the same job in 1970.

Today, that full-time Illinois minimum wage worker now has to use 32.6 weeks۪ worth of her pay to cover college tuition at a public university. That۪s almost two-thirds of her wages for the entire year. That leaves just a little more than one-third of her wages to pay for food, rent, utilities, clothing, and any child care needed to work and attend classes.

For a worker who earns well under $20,000 a year, higher education is essentially out of reach unless she takes on student loans. An increasing number of students, including community college attendees, are doing just that, but all-too-often it leads to crushing debt for recent graduates, taking decades to pay off.

We have a crisis on our hands. When only the well-off can afford college, the “American Dream” of working hard and making a better life for yourself is unattainable. No matter how hard or how much they work, low-wage workers simply can۪t earn enough to cover the costs of college. Since so many low-wage jobs are dominated by women, it is women who are disproportionately affected. And with state and federal grants perpetually in danger of funding cuts, the problem may well be getting worse. Unless we find ways to make college affordable for all students, we risk creating a permanent underclass.

It۪s time for solutions. And one of those solutions is for the state and federal governments to start investing in education again. We need more funding for public universities and community colleges, so the cost of tuition stabilizes and once again puts education within reach for low-income students.

We also need more investment in grants for students with financial need. In Illinois, that means more funding for the Monetary Award Program (MAP), a statewide grant for low-income students that is chronically underfunded. Each year, more than 150,000 MAP-eligible students are turned away because the funding isn۪t there. We need to ensure full funding for the MAP grant, and for other similar programs nationwide. We should also think about out-of-the-box solutions and include and involve other industries with an interest in our economy and workforce, like foundations and businesses.

In a tight economy, it can be hard to argue for a bigger investment in colleges and need-based grants. But this targeted spending has the potential to pay big dividends. Adults who hold college degrees earn more, which means they pay more in taxes, shop more, and are better able to invest in their families and their communities. They۪re even more likely to do so if they۪re not saddled with huge amounts of student loan debt. It۪s a win-win for everyone.

At the same time, we also need to raise the minimum wage, so that low-wage working students have a better shot at paying their bills while they go to school.

Making college more affordable will go a long way towards promoting opportunity and pathways to better employment for all Americans, especially women and their families. We have the tools to make it happen. Now we just need the will.

To print a PDF version of this document, click here.

Sarah Labadie is a Senior Policy Associate with Women Employed, a nonprofit organization working to expand educational and employment opportunities for America۪s working women.

The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author or authors alone, and not those of Spotlight. Spotlight is a non-partisan initiative, and Spotlight۪s commentary section includes diverse perspectives on poverty. If you have a question about a commentary, please don۪t hesitate to contact us at

If you wish to submit for consideration a commentary to Spotlight, please visit our commentary guidelines and submission page.

« Back to Spotlight Exclusives