It’s 1 a.m. on a Saturday morning in Tuscaloosa. On The Strip, students are laughing through their masks, thinking about getting McDonald’s and realizing they aren’t going to get any work done on their midterm tomorrow. Some are stressing over schoolwork. Others have been asleep for hours, maybe in their cozy room in a residence hall.
On the first floor of that residence hall, an over-caffeinated resident advisor works a late night desk assistant shift. And a few streets over, a student catches up on the homework they fit in around engineering University Programs events. And in the next apartment building over, a graduate teaching assistant stares at their checking account balance and tries to figure out what they can afford to eat this week.
Their jobs are different, and they’ve probably never met, but these student workers can all agree on one thing: student pay rates come nowhere near adequate compensation.
It’s a part of the vicious cycle called turning a profit: you have to ask more from your students in tuition and fees than you pay them. While that cycle does allow certain employees of the University to rack up six figures by the end of the year, it also creates a stressful environment for student workers trying to live sustainably.
The University doesn’t have to pay every student worker a salary. College should be a time for students to learn to budget for themselves. But at a university where the cheapest parking pass option is $240, the highest $660, they could at least offer their workers some relief. A common pay rate for on-campus jobs is $7.25 per hour at a maximum of 20 hours per week, but those 20 hours aren’t always available. Student jobs are in high demand, so students who need every available penny may wind up short.
Other students may not even be paid at an hourly rate. I’ve worked campus jobs over the summer that paid a $1200 stipend, which is hardly enough to survive on in Tuscaloosa. On-campus housing is extremely limited during the summer, and the cheapest apartments you can find in Tuscaloosa will run you $450 to $600 a month, not including utilities.
And these weren’t even jobs that put me at risk. Other student workers have had to make hard decisions about staying safe and making money as the pandemic set in. Earlier this semester, some desk assistants at Burke Hall West had to start checking in students who were positive for COVD-19 without warning. Suddenly, they became essential workers, but without the extreme PPE or people leaning out of windows to clap for them at the end of the day. They also didn’t have any hazard pay.
Essential workers nationwide have been paid extra or offered incentives for risking their health by working with those diagnosed with COVID-19, and students should have been offered some form of relief for their sacrifice. Though student workers were eventually relocated after numerous complaints, the incident spoke volumes about the worth this university assigns to student workers.
“Student workers have never been respected, despite all the work done by them on campus,” UA alumna Teryn Shipman said in a recent interview.
She was right. Instead, student workers have been treated like pawns, means to an end assigned to various chores that make the University run smoothly. The reality is that students make this university. Their creativity, their labor and their knowledge make campus vibrant and interesting. They can’t be expected to be at their best for this school, in their work or in their studies, when they have to dedicate so much time to making ends meet.
The student experience is not monolith. We don’t all have families that can support us financially. We don’t all have the time to take a full course load and work several jobs on the side, and the fact that there are only 24 hours in a day shouldn’t mean that some students end up with a watered-down college experience.
Instead of continuing the trend of students suffering financially in college because previous generations did, we must change the trajectory. The University should provide students with on-campus job opportunities within their major that will expand their understanding and financial situations or provide reductions in the cost of campus requirements outside of tuition.
It’s not as if all the offered jobs are boring or in terrible conditions. I’ve enjoyed all of my campus jobs, but at times I had to leave them due to the low pay. And, of course, not every student worker agrees with me. First year nursing student Kalyn Brooks said that on-campus jobs provide a great deal of resources such as building connections, being in a convenient location and assisting with housing.
“The only thing I hated was parking,” Brooks said.
I urge The University of Alabama to invest in their students more. We love giving to our university. But it would be nice to receive that same giving spirit in return.