A $15 Minimum Wage Is the Wrong Answer for College-Student Employees

(Michael Burrell/iStock/Getty Images Plus)
But conservatives should offer solutions of our own.

The recent push on American campuses to make the minimum wage $15 is well-intentioned but grossly misguided. While it is cathartic to scoff at left-wing students with their purple hair and Birkenstocks demanding 200 percent raises, we on the right should not be too quick to dismiss them. Our most cited solution to student debt — getting the government out of higher education — does nothing for students now, nor is it likely to ever happen in a meaningful way.

While we waste words on the ideal, the reality of higher ed is an unchecked ballooning of prices. Students can be forgiven for thinking the Right is out of touch and scornful when it comes to college affordability, just as the Right is correct in shaking its head at the stupidity of a minority of students accepting five-figure debt for pointless degrees.

As a college senior and intern, I have some ideas about the most effective ways to lower expenses for college students and to increase their incomes. While it’s easy to critique the silly ideas of one’s peers, such as arbitrarily doubling the minimum wage (which would indeed have negative consequences), I’ve found that conservatives often fail to present reasonable alternatives. So here are two ways of quickly raising student income without pay bumps or other significant expense to universities. Why does expense matter? Because any increases will be passed on to students in fees and tuition, it is best to look for budget-neutral solutions.

The first and simplest such solution that would help financially overwhelmed students is lifting the cap on student-employee hours to 29. The current max of 20 hours a week at many schools, even at the proposed $15 an hour, results in a pittance for the student.

While it is understandable that universities want the focus of one’s time while attending school to be on schoolwork — hence the hours-cap — campus employment under such limitations will remain little more than supplemental income. This can cause unnecessary anxiety in the student body — hardly conducive to rewarding study.

The proposed bump to 29 hours provides students with nine additional income-generating hours while staying comfortably beneath the federal 30-hour threshold, which mandates employers to provide health care and all sorts of other benefits, necessarily driving up employment costs. Thus, a nine-hour adjustment is a win for the students and asks little of universities outside amending some language in their policies.

But this is not a long-term solution. The $15-an-hour crowd is correct in pointing out that the cost of higher ed means that students need more money even just to cover room and board.

Enter here phase two. We in Wisconsin’s Fox Valley are fortunate to be home to many industries, such as providers of manufactured paper and Amazon products. The need for additional help in these industries is profound, and wages are high organically because of market forces.

In the context of my city, all that would be required is adding stops to the campus shuttle service. The shuttle would drop off students at Amazon, Appvion, Luvata, and other employers along the established route.

Students could catch the shuttle after classes at 4:20 and work a 5–9 half-shift before the shuttle picks them up and returns to campus. The dinner shift is when many employers are especially pressed to find workers, as most nonstudent employees wish to be home with their families.

This arrangement leaves adequate time for study while getting students to high-paying jobs with name recognition. Students might even be motivated to study harder after experiencing the fluctuations of job satisfaction that shift work offers. My years of air-conditioning repair and the thought of having to return to it certainly motivate me to keep typing and studying.

While manufacturing and production jobs are not equally available throughout the country, schools could partner with local employers — restaurants and hotels in tourist-heavy Florida, auto manufacturers in Georgia, or grocers in Connecticut — and facilitate similar job programs for students.

While it may seem odd to have schools involved in students getting hired off-campus, most students will be new to the area and ignorant of the employment opportunities. Schools playing the middleman allow for “purchasing power” that would increase the odds of an employer’s agreeing to half-shifts. The employer could expect numerous students by going through the university instead of individual hiring.

These two changes — hours increase and university-sponsored off-campus employment — would raise students’ average per-month income while costing the university very little, unlike a raise of the hourly wage to $15.

Unfortunately, even these measures can do only so much. According to some quick calculations on my liberal-arts school’s website, the average student is on the line for about $25,000 per year after financial aid is applied to the total cost of $63,000. That is . . . many dollars.

So far, we’ve looked for ways to increase a student’s ability to pay that obscene amount from the bottom up, but is there a way to reduce that fee from the top down?

One way to reduce school costs is to cut some administration loose. Admin accounts for 33 percent of my school’s $69 million operating budget. There is definitely some unnecessary bloat in there. For a start, anyone with the title “coordinator” can probably go; not because they’re not helpful but because there are better ways of employing them. Last year, I argued that administrators could do their jobs better for less cost via remote, with the expense of their employment shared among many schools. Why pay for administrators whose existences are necessary only a handful of times a year? Show them the door.

Another funding possibility is to open campuses for night classes taught by adjuncts. It would be a high-margin offering for the university, as they’re paying to heat the buildings anyway, and adjuncts are academic serfs compensated with barley chaff (and even worse-dressed than their medieval forebears). Make the tuition an easily understood flat fee, and many retirees and educators from the surrounding communities would gladly sign up.

The third suggestion intersects with the $15-an-hour folks. I’m all for paying those student employees $15 an hour who cannot find employment off-campus because of legal or medical status. However, to avoid raising costs for all students, these would be the only students hired on campus.

The amount of money allocated to student employment is finite. We can have many making little or a few making much. Because of funding scarcity, there’d necessarily be a contraction of work on campus by at least half with a wage increase. I think that’s just fine, as most campus jobs exist only to exist.

We don’t need to pay someone to tell us to swipe our card at the campus gym. We don’t need two students at the Welcome Desk. We don’t need a separate individual to check our ID before entering the campus bar. Student jobs are by and large created not because the roles are necessary but because they are included in financial-aid packages as enticements and ostensibly offset the ludicrously high tuition.

Saving the Left from itself is a time-honored conservative tradition, and we would be well-served by showing a generation of students the value of marketplace problem-solving.


The Latest