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The Carletonian

Financial Aid Working Group ponders wage differentiation

Aidan Phinney ’24 stands behind the Nourish counter at Burton Hall ladling out portions of stir-fried soba noodles with cabbage and sesame tofu. The next student in line asks if they can have double helpings. He shakes his head and informs them they can always come back for more. 

Phinney is a student manager. Theoretically, he should be helping run the kitchen and shouldn’t be serving food at all. But understaffing in the dining hall means you’ll see green polos scooping meals behind the thick slanted glass alongside their blue-clad subordinates. To Phinney, and to many others in the dining hall, the remedy for this issue  is clear. 

“Increased pay is the only solution to the problem,” said Phinney. “Other students often have jobs where they can do their homework or perform work that is more academically or professionally focused — the extra benefits in the dining hall simply do not make up for that.”

Almost 80% of the student body works on campus in some capacity. While student dining hall workers are perhaps the most visible manifestation of student work, student workers are everywhere: in Sayles, the library, at the post office, lifeguarding at West Gym or the Rec Center. However, out of all student workplaces, the dining hall has faced the most severe staffing shortages. 

This issue came to a head last year when extremely poor student worker retention meant the dining halls were dramatically understaffed. LDC alone lost 50% of its student workers, and almost 70% of its labor as student workers quit or cut back hours. 

After negotiations, dining hall student workers and administration reached a temporary solution: All student dining hall workers who continued working through the end of Spring Term would receive a two-dollar retention bonus, and managers received a flat one-dollar raise on top of this.

However, for Phinney, this temporary solution doesn’t come close to fixing the problem.

“The extra money doesn’t make up for the difficulties of the dining hall in comparison to other campus work,” said Phinney. “It gets harder to manage the dining hall as the number of student workers dwindles. The vast majority of student workers leaving cite that the tradeoff isn’t worth it to continue working in the dining hall.”

Carleton’s response

Carleton has turned its attention toward reevaluating the role of student workers on campus in the form of a new financial aid working group consisting of students, faculty, trustees and staff. 

The working group has no real decision-making power but is tasked with “reviewing Carleton’s approach to meeting student financial need and how financial aid is utilized to meet that need,” according to Carleton Today. The committee will then make recommendations to the administration after it completes its evaluation process which is expected at the end of Winter Term. 

One topic on the committee’s plate is student work and the place of work-study programs in Carleton’s financial aid packages. Michael Hemesath, professor of Economics, co-chairs the committee alongside Art Rodriguez, dean of Admissions and Financial Aid. Hemesath addressed some of the questions the committee is investigating in an interview with the Carletonian. 

“One question we’ve been asking is ‘how do you fill jobs on campus that are less attractive than other jobs?’” said Hemesath. “There’s no doubt that, among the range of things that students do on campus, some are more attractive than others. So should we consider tweaking the pay model for students?” 

Along with other campus jobs that Hemesath mentioned, would-be student workers also have access to the Northfield job market. Survey data from the Student Work Experience Subcommittee shows that while only about 10% of students have worked off campus, those that do can earn higher wages than they would on campus: the average wage for off-campus work was $18 an hour and the median $16, while the wage for student work is only $12. 

Hemesath went on to say that, in his personal view, Carleton should move toward a model that operates like a market economy. 

“How much would we have to pay someone to work in the dining hall?” asked Hemsath. “An extra $1 an hour might not do it. $5 an hour might. $50 an hour definitely would. Now, I’m not saying it’s going to be $50 an hour, obviously, but there is a price that people would give up doing homework at their job to go work in the dining hall, and we should pay that if we want to attract students to that job.” 

Income-inequality and wage differentiation

There are other concerns with student work besides retaining workers. If less attractive jobs were paid more than others, students from low-income backgrounds who need the money as part of their financial aid package might disproportionately apply to these jobs. Meanwhile, more affluent students would potentially work easier, lower compensated jobs. 

Hemesath also addressed this critique and how student work plays into broader questions of income inequality at Carleton and beyond.  

“Wage differentials might well create two groups of student jobs: higher-paid jobs that are ‘harder’ and lower-paid jobs that are ‘easier,’” said Hemesath. “Might students receiving financial aid be more attracted to higher paying but harder jobs, with the reverse for students not on aid? Very possibly, but to me it is important that students have a choice in the matter.  Currently students do not have this choice, and it certainly mirrors the choices students will be making after they graduate.” 

Olivia Potter ’23, a four-year dining hall employee and a student manager for more than two years, addressed this issue. 

“There’s no easy answer to this question,” said Potter. “Income inequality is already very visible within student work at Carleton. We see that many students quit student-work very early, and, as a result, we can already see this pattern of income inequality playing out in who stays and who does not. So I think wage differentiation wouldn’t change that landscape, because the problem is already there.”

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