What in the World: Fight for fifteen’s folly

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The recent push on campus to make the minimum wage $15 is well-intentioned but misguided. It may not shock the good readers of The Lawrentian that I would be of this opinion, seeing as I’m purportedly a conservative shill for capitalism. This is undeniably true — the “I Heart the Koch Brothers” t-shirt in my dresser proves it — but I’m here to win hearts and minds for my corporate overlords, not rain on good-hearted folks’ parade. Thus, I’ll refrain from wailing, “But the economy!” Instead, I’ll approach the issue with my ideological-blinders at half-mast to deliberate over the most effective ways of lowering the costs of, and increasing incomes for, the student body. At the very end, I’ll argue for why a minimum wage increase of 100% on campus would not achieve such an end for an overwhelming majority of students.  

Let us begin with some ways to make school more affordable. After all, it’s easy for a columnist to critique the proposals of his peers most savagely, but reasonable alternatives are rarely offered in their place. The following will be a rarity then, as I think there are two ways of quickly raising student income without pay bumps or other significant expense to the university. 

The first and simplest thing that would help financially-overwhelmed students is lifting the cap on student-employee hours to 29. The current max of 20 hours a week, even at the proposed 15 dollars an hour, results in a pittance for the student. While it is understandable that the university wants the focus of one’s time at Lawrence to be on schoolwork — hence the hour-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. 

29 hours provide students with 9 additional income-generating hours while staying comfortably beneath the federal 30-hour threshold requiring the employer to provide healthcare and all sorts of additional benefits, which drive up employment costs. It’s a win for the students and asks little of the university outside of amending some language in its policies.  

But this is not a long-term solution. The “15 an hour” crowd is correct in pointing out that Lawrence’s cost necessitates significant income. Enter here phase two. We here in the Fox Valley are fortunate to be home to many industries and providers of manufacturing, paper and Amazon products. Wages are high organically due to market forces, and the need for additional help in these industries is profound.  

I propose adding routes to the Lawrence shuttle service that 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. 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 shiftwork offers. My years of air-conditioning repair and the thought of having to return to it certainly motivate me to keep typing. 

These two changes to the employment of Lawrentians would raise students’ average monthly income while costing the university very little, unlike a raise of the hourly wage to 15 dollars. Unfortunately, even these measures can only do so much. According to some quick calculations on Lawrence’s website, I calculated that the average student is on the line for about $25,000 per year after financial aid is applied to the calculated 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? I think so.  

One way to reduce the cost of Lawrence is to cut some administration loose. Admin accounts for 33% of Lawrence’s 69 million-dollar operating budget. I am positive there is 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. This brilliant and handsome fellow wrote a compelling bit in National Review about how such administrators could do their jobs better for less cost via remote work, with the expense of their employment shared among many schools. Why pay for administrators whose existences are only necessary a handful of times a year? Show them the door.  

Another possibility is to open the campus 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 paid in barley chaff (and even worse-dressed than their medieval forebearers). Many in Appleton would sign up for Lawrence evening classes given its reputation for excellence, and their tuition could subsidize the full-time students. 

The third suggestion intersects with the “15 an hour” folks. Personally, I’m all for paying those student employees $15 an hour who, by dint of their undocumented or foreign status, are unable to find employment off-campus. 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 fund scarcity, there’d necessarily be a contraction of employment on campus by at least half with a wage increase, and I think that’s just fine.  

Most campus jobs exist only to exist. We don’t need to pay someone to tell us to swipe our card at the gym. We don’t need two students at the Information Desk in Warch. We don’t need a separate individual to check our ID before entering the Viking Room. For that matter, Lawrentian staff don’t need to be paid. Campus jobs are created not because the roles are necessary, but because it’s included in financial aid packages as an offset for ludicrously high tuition.  

Lawrence is an expensive institution, primarily because of its organizational structure. Its size is a benefit in many ways, but that also means we each are required to pitch in far more than if the school were larger and enjoyed economies of scale. This is the reality of the situation, and it is unlikely to change. That said, there are simple ways to increase student income while also reducing costs, and I think these avenues should be fully explored for the good of the institution and student body.  

Agree? Disagree? Let me know at abell@lawrence.edu.

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