This Viral Meme Explains the Big Problem With the Conversation About Student Loan Debt

April 27th 2017

Danielle DeCourcey

A recent viral Facebook post that highlights the importance of accounting for inflation has also raised a key point about college affordability. The U.S. Democratic Socialists shared the post, which featured an intern's story about an interaction with her boss. It currently has more than 2,000 shares. 

"My internship boss was talking about how he had to work in a mail room to make ends meet during college where he 'only made $6 per hour..."

She also included a picture of the Bureau of Labor Statistics CPI Inflation calculator which shows that $6 in January of 1980 would actually be worth in $18.73 in January of 2017. 

And, as of March when the latest data was made available, $6 in 1980 would have the same value as $18.80 in today's dollars. 

Other Facebook users commented on the significant differences between working a low-wage job during college in the past and now. 

A post about college affordability and inflation.

Post about college affordability.

Post about college affordability.

As some commenters noted, this overlooked inflation issue is a key part of the conversation about student loans. Because, quite simply, while part-time and minimum wage jobs actually paid more decades ago than they do now, the cost of college tuition has risen significantly more than the rate of inflation

It's not a realistic expectation for college students to pay for their tuition through part time jobs. 

As ATTN: pointed out in 2014, a student in 1978, working a full-time, minimum wage summer job could afford to pay a year of tuition at a public college or university. In 2014, a student had to work for almost the entire year to afford a year's worth of state tuition. 



Plus, the federal minimum wage of only $7.25 hasn't gone up since 2009. As David Cooper, a senior analyst at the Economic Policy Institute, told ATTN: in November 2016, the minimum wage should actually be more than double what is is today, and raising it would help all low-income workers. 

"If we had raised the federal minimum wage at the same pace as productivity growth since 1968, the high point of the federal minimum wage in inflation-adjusted terms, it would be over $19 an hour today," he said. "That means that anyone making less than $19 an hour today is potentially making less than what the economy could have afforded them, if we had adopted different policies over the last 48 years."

Meanwhile as CNBC columnist Jake Novak wrote on Sunday, schools are raising the cost of tuition higher than inflation because, essentially, there is no mechanism in place to stop them. 

"The biggest reason college tuition prices have consistently shot up more than inflation, is because they can," wrote Novak on Sunday. "Schools know that federally-backed student loans have no effective caps: As long as the prospective student and her parents are willing to take on massive loans, the sky's the limit."

RELATED: How Much You Need To Work To Cover Tuition in 1978 vs. 2014