As a work-study student and Pell Grant recipient, I don’t disagree with the sentiment that more money would benefit some of Kenyon’s student workers. Just over a year ago, The Kenyon Collegian included the articles “Student voices should inform pay raises” and “Despite slight pay increase, students dissatisfied with wages.” Yet, when I consider student employee hiring at Kenyon, even a year later, increasing student wages is neither the most likely, nor the most pressing issue regarding student employment. What we should address is how we can better support the students who need on-campus jobs the most.
The main discussion of work-study students was in the Collegian’s Dec. 13, 2018 staff editorial “Student voices should inform pay raises,” which states that “many students who work for Kenyon do so not for extra spending money, but for work-study or personal financial need. This allows the College to use worker precarity to gain unfair amounts of power over the laboring student body.” The other news article from the same issue, “Despite slight pay increase, students dissatisfied with wages,” contained a quote that said Kenyon’s pay is not competitive with that of off-campus employment.
Kenyon has three tiers of hourly pay for student employees as of 2019: $8.55, $9.75 and $10.98. These wages are comparable to part-time wages in Mount Vernon and the surrounding area. Kenyon student employees benefit from an on-campus location and, in some cases, grace during times of academic stress. Kenyon’s student wages are actually comparatively higher than other Ohio schools such as Oberlin College and The College of Wooster. According to their websites, Wooster pays student employees the state’s minimum wage of $8.55 and Oberlin offered wages hovering between $8.30 and $8.60 during the 2017-2018 school year. Kenyon extends fair wages in the context of Ohio as a whole, so I disagree that it misuses its power as the main employer of students—with regards to pay.
The student perspectives in the Collegian argued that the kind of work students are doing is not properly compensated. This notion on its own is problematic, though, because if Kenyon student jobs are truly worth more than $8.55, $9.75 or $10.98 per hour in Ohio, that justifies a more selective and competitive application process than the one that already exists. What the College should really take more seriously is its commitment to work-study students by making it easier for them to gain employment. Most low-wage jobs can be done by most people with basic training, which should allow for Kenyon to easily comply with considering work-study students first in hiring processes.
Kenyon is a competent employer in terms of wages, but it needs to acknowledge its unique responsibilities as the primary employer available to students. The Kenyon website states that “employment on campus is NOT guaranteed for any student,” so there is no formal prioritization of work-study students over other students with less financial need. The site does not mention the two-week window in which work-study students have the opportunity to apply for positions before the general student population, about which they typically only receive one email. This two-week, early application window becomes much less effective when the College does not require for employers to view work-study students’ early applications with higher priority.
Lower-income students often have more daily financial responsibilities than their peers. It does not help when Kenyon implements a competitive hiring system with no obvious priority of work-study status, complete with cover letters, resumes and interviews. This is especially true for first-generation students who may not have much experience with or knowledge of this type of application process, or first-year work-study students who receive the email in August while still at home. It can be insulting when the College expects work-study students to take on the part-time job of applying for every single position that they qualify for in August as a way to increase their chances of securing employment rather than having policies in place to support them.
Other colleges make it easier for work-study students to get jobs. At Williams College in Massachusetts, there is a four-tier hiring system. The school has Federal Work Study jobs reserved only for qualifying students. The system also assigns levels of hiring priority to the student population based on need. The website explicitly tells students who do not qualify for high priority to be, “aware that you’re a low hiring priority and you may have to wait until others who are higher priority than you have been given a chance.” This is the kind of consideration that Kenyon should be using to prioritize its work-study students and the type of language that stresses the importance of work-study hiring. The College also could more closely consider what makes a Kenyon employer want to hire someone. Perhaps we can check whether we are placing value in relevant skills that lower-income students may be more likely to have, such as previous work experience.
I am asking for Kenyon to think more inclusively about the issues when talking about student employment matters, and to think about the logistics of a student wage raise. While it is unclear whether Kenyon can or should raise student wages, we as students should be asking and should be able to expect that our primary employer, Kenyon College, will focus more on increasing work-study students’ access to jobs.