Op-Ed: University Needs Higher Minimum Wage

By Joel Desmarais

The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that those with a bachelor’s degree earn about $1,173 a week while those without a bachelor’s degree only earn about $712 per week. Very few dispute the value of higher education, however, with tuition costs rising, it falls to parents and students in order to find new ways to offset the costs.   

Unfortunately, students are finding that increasingly difficult. Some estimate that the percentage of students who will default on their student loans will rise to about 40% by 2023. It is critical that students, as well as parents, find other ways to reduce their reliance on large loans to pay for tuition. One way that students often do this is by getting a job in college, usually at the institution they attend. This has a couple of advantages. Employers on campus are more likely to understand and work around students’ academic schedules, and the lack of a long commute helps students fit a job into their busy lives. At the Catholic University of America, students work in a variety of positions on campus such as dorm security, event support, housing, technical support, student outreach, and in academic offices. Student workers make such an enormous contribution to our campus that it is unlikely a student can go through an average week without being helped by at least one of their friends.

College students often juggle both the necessities of life, food, housing, transportation, and the costs of their own education. The words of the USCCB apply particularly to young adults in the United States, as a financial misstep in their college years could hold them back for years to come.

CUA students go to school in one of the most expensive cities in the country. D.C. is considered the fifth most expensive city to live in with transportation costs coming in at the third-highest in the country. This particularly high cost of living comes with a minimum wage to match at $13.25 an hour.  For CUA students, earning this wage is especially important as they not only have to live in the city, but they must also bear the cost of attendance at CUA. Unfortunately for college students, universities in the city are not obligated by law to comply with their local minimum wage laws, and some do not.

The three most prominent collegiate institutions in D.C., American University, Georgetown University, and George Washington University, all pay their students a varying minimum wage. Georgetown student worker positions often start at a $10.50 minimum. The most recently published data for George Washington shows that they complied with an increase in the minimum wage to $12.50 an hour in July of 2017. American University pays the most with their student workers being paid the D.C. minimum wage at $13.25 an hour. Compared to these schools, how does CUA stack up? The most recently-published data from CUA is from 2012, but at that time the lowest-paid students, designated “Level 1” workers, were paid $7.25 an hour, and “Level IV” undergraduate student workers could be paid up to $13.00 an hour. Additionally, all students working consecutive semesters in the same position received a $0.25 raise. Although this data is outdated, the $13.00 flat rate is still the highest for undergraduates on campus. That number is just shy of the DC minimum wage, but the only program that offers that rate is Campus Ministry’s DC Reads program, which is a work study program, so a relatively small number of students will earn that much.  If a student does not qualify for work-study, they only offered a volunteer position. For the sake of transparency, CUA ought to update both current and potential students with precise numbers of how much student workers can expect to earn, and more importantly, how little CUA can legally pay them.

With the national spotlight on the plight of students seeking higher education, college students, as well as institutions, must find a way to equip new workers for the challenges of the modern job market without saddling them with crippling debt. A solution that benefits both students and universities is more students seeking work at their schools, however; in an expensive, urban setting, institutions must consider the greater financial demands placed on their students. After all, we cannot claim to safeguard and promote the human person and not pay our students a living wage, especially as a failure to do so might set them up for bankruptcy once they graduate.

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