The Research Pays Off

With students in need, living costs inflated, and research in support, the U should start paying students a living wage.

College is difficult. It’s even harder when you live in financial insecurity. Grace Peterson knows the struggle all too well.

Peterson, a senior at the University of Minnesota studying sociology, works three jobs in addition to school. She often gets little sleep. She usually completes her homework minutes before it’s due—a consequence of time rather than procrastination. She constantly worries about the diminishing number in her bank account.

Some days, Peterson works all three jobs and attends class, barely finding time in between to eat lunch or dinner.

Yet, Peterson still doesn’t make enough to cover her basic expenses. “Even though I work so much I still don’t have enough money to be comfortable,” she said.

Unfortunately, the same is true for many students at the U.

Last summer Minneapolis adopted a $15 living wage, joining the select group of cities across the country—including Seattle, San Francisco and Washington, D.C.—leading the fight for fairer wages. The decision, prompted by years of advocacy from workers, labor activists, and experts, is a significant step forward. The $15 living wage is expected to increase the earnings of 71,000 low-wage workers, most of whom are people of color.

But there are gaps in the Minneapolis ordinance. The ordinance explicitly excluded the federal, state, and county government. In effect, the University of Minnesota, which receives its charter from the state of Minnesota, was not required to raise wages.

Because of the exclusion, University student workers are only guaranteed $9.50 per hour. According to the University, most student positions pay more than the base wage, although that usually means just over a dollar more. As such, thousands of students like Peterson work for wages far less than they deserve.

Peterson has worked at the Rarig Center since her first semester at the U. Even after four years, she fails to come close to $15 per hour. And she feels the strain.

“It’s hard and frustrating because life as a student is already hard, but on top of that having to deal with all the stress of working … and not having enough money on top of all that,” Peterson said.

Most workers at the University are paid more than the designated minimum wage. Yet there are still many workers—including teamsters, low-skilled employees, and students—who continue to earn less than fair wages.

Thus far, the University has not committed or indicated plans to ensure students a fair working wage.

Ironically, the University’s stance on student wages directly counters its own research on the minimum wage. A comprehensive study conducted last year by the Humphrey School’s Roy Wilkins Center underscored the benefits of raising the minimum wage in Minneapolis. This proved crucial to supporters of the living wage, proving the necessary political backing and a solid bulwark against critics, skeptics, and business interests.

In particular, the study found that a $15 living wage has minimal negative economic consequences, especially for larger employers. The University, the sixth largest employer in the state, clearly fits this description.

More so, the study indicated that employers with relatively few low-skilled workers “are not very likely to see a large change in their operating costs as a result of the proposed minimum wage.”

Although the U is subject to a variety of economic pressures, including the whims of Minnesota taxpayers and politicians, sacrificing fair wages is not a viable way to ensure financial solvency.

Wages for student workers make up an incredibly small proportion of the U’s massive $3.7 billion budget. How much does the University really save by pinching pennies on student wages?

Ironically, the University’s stance on student wages directly counters its own research on the minimum wage.

It’s time the University adheres to its own research, especially as an institution dedicated to learning and knowledge.

But it’s more than a matter of the U’s bottom line—it’s a matter of doing what’s right.

Students are well deserving of a raise. More than 75 percent of students will work a job in addition to their classes at the U. Yet, close to half of college students suffer from food insecurity, and even more struggle to pay for rent.

Peterson explained, “There are so many students working while going to college and the money that they are making in these jobs is money they need to survive.”

Yet, even as the costs of college living have risen at a staggering rate, students’ earnings have not.

Just last year, the U increased tuition by 12.5 percent for out-of-state students and 2 percent for in-state students. In an interview with MPR News, President Kaler justified the decision as “inflationary adjustments in tuition,” explaining that the University’s costs go up every year.

President Kaler is right when it comes to covering the costs of inflation. And shouldn’t the same principle apply to wages?

Peterson pays for tuition with a combination of loans, grants and scholarships—she is taking on a massive amount of debt to complete her sociology degree. Her three jobs pay for everyday living expenses.

“I’m not even talking about needing to work three jobs to pay my tuition. I’m not even there. I’m not even touching my loans. This is just jobs so I can pay for things I need like food, toiletry stuff, necessities,” Peterson said. “This is just [paying for] basic needs.”

Although the Minnesota minimum wage is higher than most other standards, it has still failed to even keep up with standard inflation. The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development estimates a living wage in Hennepin County is around $15.25 per hour for a single person. With the cost of attending the U increasing 373 percent in the last 25 years—well beyond the rate of inflation—students deserve an “inflationary adjustment” too.

I’m not the first to say that students face financial burdens that are beyond what can be solved by a part-time job. I’d be hard-pressed to find someone on campus who wouldn’t willfully accept $5 more per hour.

A $15 living wage for students may not solve the rising cost of higher education or dig students out of the depths of student debt, but it’s better than nothing.

The extra money would help ease Peterson’s constant concerns about making enough money to cover her basic expenses. “If I made $5 more, I would not have to work so many jobs. I wouldn’t push myself to work so many hours,” Peterson said.

“I can’t be a student first because I have to make sure I’m working enough to support myself,” Peterson said. “If I made 15 I would be able to put my identity as a student and my school work first, which is arguably what I should be doing as a student and what the University should be supporting.”

The University is not legally bound to raise wages, but it has the freedom to raise wages on its own accord.

Like the U, Hennepin County is one of the largest employers in Minneapolis exempted by the ordinance. In a Facebook post, Council Member Cam Gordon explained the County has already committed to raising the wages of all its employees to over $15 an hour. The U should follow this example.

It’s time to provide all employees a fair living wage. A fair living wage may ensure that students can, at the very least, live. The U may not be obligated by the law, but it should feel obligated by its own research and its responsibility to students.

For Peterson, it comes down to a simple conclusion: “If people are working to live then they should be making living wages.”