This concept fascinates me: according to NYTimes, College of the Ozarks has students work off their college tuition so that they can graduate debt-free or nearly so. Tuition is $15,900 per year, and all students must work 15 hours a week, so they earn about $12,000 a year, all of which goes towards their tuition.
I've been thinking about this issue a lot lately, mostly vis a vis grad schools. I have no interest in going $100k or so into debt, especially if the degree will not help me to gain a large enough salary increase to pay it back. You can't really work enough hours while attending school fulltime to pay it off. But you used to be able to. CJ's father worked his way through a (top-10) law school in a factory. I know people who waited tables, or did other minimum wage labor in order to pay for school.
But you can't anymore. Why? In part, at least, because minimum wage, while never very much, is, adjusted for inflation, lower than it used to be. Or at the very least, not increasing proportionately. There's been a great deal of research on how minimum-wage workers can't get by, for instance Nickle and Dimed, and that episode of 30 days with Morgan Spurlock and his girlfriend working for a fast food place.
The cost of college has risen disproportionate to inflation, at something like three times the regular rate. Add to that the recent college loan scandals, and we're in a real mess. The answer? Either serious education reform*, loan reform, minimum wage reform, or all of the above.
*Like encouraging more students to go to technical schools. The United States has an amazing Community College/Technical School system, and we don't do a great job of encouraging kids into those fields, or helping them to decide what fields they could succeed in.