The farce of the private university campus job

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?

4 thoughts on “The farce of the private university campus job

  1. Wow! This is astounding! I once did work-study and made barely enough to cover my rent per quarter, when I was an undergrad. The rest of my tuition came from grants/loans, but I was fortunate. I was OLD. Because of my age, I was eligible for more funding in Pell Grants, I think. I went to the junior college and paid my way through that (with campus jobs and summer internships) and then transferred and by then I was a 24-year-old junior. After 23 or 24 years (an ‘independent’), FAFSA worked for me very well. So I got most of my tuition covered and then I got lucky and landed a $2000 scholarship for my last 2 years (I was a super-senior and actually enrolled for an extra year). But hey, maybe my taxes were just coming back to me in the form of grants. Ah, well. It was a Univ of CA campus so not too too expensive. Anyhow, once I got to UM/grad school, I was floored by the cost. That was for sure too too expensive and I couldn’t become a Michigan resident and get resident tuition because I hadn’t lived in MI for at least a year as a non-student prior to attending UM. Bizarre, when you think about it. Quite a bit of anxiety for me. Every semester there was a ton of stress going around in anthro dept b/c grad students didn’t know if they’d get the coveted TAships and the chance to stay on for another semester with ‘full’ funding (TAships were seen as pretty comprehensive sweet deal packages). The dept did a good job of playing on our fears (of being left out in the cold and TAship-less), but one day some very exhausted students spoke up and asked for more transparency in how TAships were awarded. Grrrr. Even then, the Union (GEO) was busily advocated for better student wages. All I wanted to do was go home and sleep and pretend stuff didn’t concern me. I didn’t want to be involved. Why bother? The president of the Univ was making close to a million dollars for her annual salary. Sickening to me. And she had a nice white mansion to live in, on the same street as the anthro dept. Some of the professors, I’m sure, made good salaries (some over $100 is what I heard) and I noticed that quite a few had not one but TWO whole offices, that is the faculty with joint appointments in anthro and various ethnic studies departments or joint work with anthro and various institutes (research or other) across campus. Grad students didn’t get an office until they were dissertation writers, if I recall. But we spent hours talking to and TAing undergrads. TAing (50% appointment) was more than 20hrs a week but we were paid a set stipend and so it fell on our shoulders to make sure we worked no more than about 22hrs per week. How to do that, only God knows. So many absurd things, but where else are we supposed to go for a “great” education? I hear that univ education is free in Finland. I’m thinking about it, just need a country with nice warm weather. Got any ideas? Cuz I really like being in school but I also like being so gloriously debt-free.

  2. hi Viola,
    Yeah, university finances are fairly incomprehensible a lot of the time. I think one professor at chicago has three offices, even! And about Finland… My sister is in Sweden actually — university is free even for foreigners there, although supposedly that will change soon. And it’s really dark up there in the winters.

    I think the main thing you can do about debt-free education in the US is to advocate for political changes in higher education funding. It would take a pretty massive effort, though, and it doesn’t sound like you have a great desire for that kind of involvement… Bousquet’s work on work study is great, by the way, and I recommend the excerpted chapter I linked to.

  3. If an education at an elite private university doesn’t seem worth the price, don’t buy it.

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