Phi Beta Cons

The Right take on higher education.

Living Wage Activism on Campus


([Another] update added after the jump.)

The Independent Women’s Forum has a new report, written by a sophomore at Claremont McKenna College, about the “living wage movement” on campuses, in which students agitate for higher wages for university employees.

The report argues that such actions actually hurt low-wage employees, much the same way minimum-wage laws do. When you increase the cost of something, even labor, people buy less of it. Minimum-wage laws help some workers make more money, but others then go unemployed because they’re too expensive to hire.

Unfortunately, the report is light on actual data from campuses that have taken these measures. Colleges, like all non-profits and government projects, are insulated a bit from market concerns, so it’s at least conceivable that, by and large, they’d just eat the extra cost of paying their lowest-level employees more. I can’t seem to find the average proportion of a university’s budget spent on these wages, but compared to professors’ salaries, office staff, student aid, supplies, etc., I can’t imagine it’s very high. (If anyone has numbers, shoot me an email at rverbruggen nationalreview com.)

The report also has this to say:

Moreover, students’ treatment of campus staff, which is often the heart of the problem, will not change relative to the wages earned by these workers. If students act rudely, it is their behavior that must change—not the university’s compensation packages.

I just don’t buy this. In four years of college, not once did I see a student treat a low-wage campus employee disrespectfully. Also, I held low-wage jobs myself growing up, and I found that the type of people who gave me/my coworkers a hard time weren’t the type of people who go to college. While I was working the drive-through at an understaffed Burger King, every once in awhile an SUV driver would make some comment like “looks like someone needs to do some hiring” (I used to get a kick out of putting applications in their bags), but the temper tantrums and thrown change never came from anyone who seemed very educated. I’d guess a college campus is the best place for a low-wage worker to go, in terms of customer interaction.

UPDATE: Scott Palmer, an associate professor at Western Illinois University, provides an example where artificial wage hikes may have affected employment on campus:

This past July, the Illinois Department of Labor enacted a mandated increase to the state’s minimum wage (from $6.50/hr to $7.50/hr). When classes resumed in the fall, the university administration responded by decreasing the number of hours that student-workers across campus would work. Our department’s student worker saw her number of hours cut from 12 to around 10.5 a week. In other words, just enough to offset the budgetary impact of the increase in the minimum wage.


UPDATE: Historian Dave Stone of Kansas State University sends a link to this page (PDF), which breaks down his school’s budget between “salaries” and “other operating expeditures.” KSU had total expenditures of about $300 million for 2006. In each category, salary outstrips “other operating expenditures,” but of course, most salary money goes to people who make more than the “living wage” even without student activism.

Stone writes that “academic support,” “student services,” “institutional services,” “physical plant,” and “computing services” are the areas most likely to employ “secretaries, custodians, computer techs, cooks, electricians, and so on,” which sounds about right – though I’d suspect that some of these workers, like computer techs, while far from rich, wouldn’t be affected by even a good-sized minimum-wage hike.

These areas together spent $63.5 million on salaries, or about 21 percent of the school’s total budget. This is obviously a high-end estimate, as clearly far from everyone paid by these departments makes less than what students call a “living wage.” But on the other hand, Stone calls his school “generally speaking, fairly tightly run,” so other schools might spend more.



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