Marc Bousquet has commented in great detail about the deliriously bad conditions of student employment in some places (particularly at UPS in Louisville, TN). As of his figures of last year, in 1964 it would have taken 22 hours of minimum-wage work per week to pay for public university education (room and board and all), or 36 hours/week for a private university. Today, it would take 55 hours of minimum-wage work per week (ie, way more than full time) to pay your way through a public university degree, and an insane 136 hours per week to pay for a private university. If you had to pay out of pocket, that is (Financial aid, obviously, might make a huge difference here, and I’m not sure that Bousquet factors it in.)
But just to give some sense of the ludicrous nature of student work at private universities, in a bit of an echo of Bousquet’s argument, I want to share some quick figures that I’ve come up with. In essence, it turns out that if you’re working minimum wage jobs at private universities, you’re arguably still paying the university to be at those jobs.
For instance. When I was in college at Cornell University, the tuition began in 2000 at $24,760 and ended up in 2004 at $28,630 annually, while university-provided room and board ranged from $8706 to $9529. You could live off campus for less than that, of course, but once you accounted for books and transportation I could imagine eight or nine thousand dollars in room, board, etc, being about right. Just taking the cheaper 2001 figures, the estimated cost of attendance would have been at least $33,466.
One big employer, of course, was the library, which paid the state minimum wage, then $5.15/hr. Cornell had two 15-week terms, so you were paying $1115.53 each week thirty weeks a year. Now, there are a hundred sixty eight hours in every week. So every hour you were at Cornell, even the ones when you were sleeping, drunk, daydreaming, etc., cost you ($1115.53/168 equals) $6.64 in tuition and living expenses. And what’s absurd is simply this: if you had that minimum wage job at the library circulation desk, you were in effect paying the university $1.49 an hour just for the privilege of showing up at work. Negative net pay, when you subtracted the hourly cost of living and tuition.
For another point of reference, at the University of Chicago, where I am now, undergrad tuition is currently $12,834 per eleven-week quarter (ten weeks of class plus a week of exams). The total cost of attendance is currently estimated at an astounding $52,450 for a year of on-campus residence. This comes out to $1589.39 per week or $9.46/hour. If you work, for instance, at the door of the campus pub, you get paid $7/hr, for a net loss of $2.46/hr.
Obviously there are all kinds of complaints you could make about this calculation. You could argue that no one is paying “per hour” every hour. (Though colleges do market themselves as purveyors of comprehensive, total, unceasing experiences.) You could argue that students are getting financial aid, and that the pay from their student jobs doesn’t go directly towards tuition, but probably more towards food, drink, small necessities, merriment, and the like. OK, but we’re talking total costs versus total wages here, and we have to realize that the costs of attending these private universities are largely hidden or spread out over time. A lot of the financial aid is in loans, which are just a way of delaying the bad news and moreover appear to increase total costs through interest, and one might argue also that most of the grants come from the federal government, hence from the taxpayers, and that some fraction of the student’s future taxes are just, in a sense, going to pay back this grant.
Ultimately the point is simple. Given the relatively bad pay of entry-level campus jobs, and the extremely high cost of private education, these jobs are in fact a net loss. Think of these jobs as paying to volunteer for the university – except that instead of being in some interesting field of your choice, you’re paying to volunteer for whatever dull task they feel like giving you. And even the more skilled campus jobs – like IT jobs that pay $10 or $12 an hour – are actually much less lucrative than they appear, when you think about how much you’re paying the university every minute that you’re there. Jeff Williams has eloquently argued that modern college education is a form of debt pedagogy. But, as Williams might have stressed more, it’s difficult for college students to comprehend what it means to borrow so much money so young. He comments on the spirit of indenture that’s realized in the shackles of student loans. What about the spirit of indenture realized in jobs that pay less than zero and serve menial campus functions?