Editorial: A complex labor lesson

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Some colleges pay students on financial aid substandard wages for work they do on campus.


Is this enriching students’ education, or just saving schools money?

The minimum wage in upstate New York is $11.10 an hour, or $12.75 if you’re a fast food worker. Two groups of people can be paid less, though: workers who earn tips, and college students in work-study programs.

It’s that latter group that’s catching some attention, notably at the most expensive college in the Capital Region, Skidmore in Saratoga Springs. The school’s Student Senate last week approved a resolution recommending that work-study wages, now $9.75, be raised to the state minimum wage.

On its face, the issue for colleges that engage in this practice seems to be one of fundamental unfairness: For students who aren’t affluent enough to afford to pay the full shot, schools will give them work — but only with substandard pay. Not exactly an enlightened lesson in social justice.

It’s arguably even more unfair when you look at how work-study programs are funded. If a student qualifies for federal financial aid, as work-study participants often do, the federal government subsidizes 75 percent of their wages. So Skidmore itself is actually paying those students only about $2.50 an hour. Quite a bargain.

This gets all the more sensitive when you consider that some studies have found that as many as half of U.S. college students are food insecure, as University at Albany Provost Carol Kim pointed out last month when the school opened a campus food bank.

But the full picture is more complex. On average, 89 percent of incoming freshmen at private non-profit colleges receive some form of financial aid (85 percent when public and for-profit schools are included). For the 2018-19 school year, on average 52 percent of tuition and fees for incoming freshmen were covered by financial aid; the figure was about 46 percent when all undergraduates were figured in, according to the National Association of College and University Business Officers.

And many private colleges say it actually costs tens of thousands of dollars more to educate a student than the tuition price.

Many colleges may have gotten themselves into this rut with excessive borrowing to make the schools more competitive for students. Should students be subsidizing a solution to that problem by working for substandard wages?

A fair answer might be yes, or no, depending on the nature of the work.

There are times when it’s arguably fair to pay a student little — or even nothing — for work that is mostly intended to educate, enrich or otherwise benefit them, as many internship programs do.

But that argument doesn’t hold up when schools are underpaying students for jobs that they would otherwise have to pay at least minimum wage to get done.

Clearly there is room for some judgment calls here and there, but we suspect most colleges know the difference between enrichment and exploitation. And we would hope that they want the graduates they send into the world to be tomorrow’s leaders to know the difference, as well.


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