Skip to Content

Student workers demand $15 per hour from universities

Seattle Minimum WageSeattle Minimum Wage
Protestors call for a $15 per hour on April 1 on the University of Washington campus in Seattle.Photograph by Ted S. Warren — AP

Last year, Fortune reported that the patchwork of laws was letting some public universities use their standing as state agencies to skirt local minimum wage laws when it came to what they paid for on-campus jobs.

Student workers, it seems, are now fighting back.

A report Monday by The Washington Post highlights on-going movements by college students at nearly 20 schools to demand higher pay for their part-time work.

Some of the student-led efforts, like that at the University of Maryland in College Park, are aimed at getting public universities to comply with local minimum wage laws. Prince George’s County, where the school is located, will increase its minimum wage to $11.50 by 2017.

The federal government’s student aid handbook says that employers must pay students at least the federal minimum wage unless a state or local law requires a higher minimum wage, in which case “the school must pay the federal work study student that higher wage.” That may seem cut and dry, but Paul Sonn, general counsel for the National Employment Law Project, told Fortune last year that when public universities are state entities there’s a question of whether the schools are required to comply with higher local standards.

Students have already secured one battle on that front. In June 2014 when Seattle voted to raise its minimum wage to $15 per hour—well above the current state rate of $9.47—the University of Washington faced the question of which wage to use as the baseline for its workers. Initially the school only raised the wages of 70 of its lowest-paid employees—not including its 2,600 students workers who earned less than $11 per hour, according to the Post. But after months of student protests, the university altered course, announcing in September that it would raise the minimum wage for students and other campus workers to $15 per hour by January 2017.

At Columbia, a private institution, students are demanding $15 an hour by arguing that wages as low as $9 per hour are forcing them to dedicate more hours to work and less time to academics.

Because federal work study dollars are awarded to eligible students based on their need, a wage hike won’t change how much students ultimately receive, but it will reduce the number of hours needed to earn the set amount. As the Post points out, if a student is awarded $3,000 in work study for the school year, she will have to complete 300 hours of work at a $10 per hour rate. Whereas a $15 per hour rate would require only 200 hours of work.

University administrations are pushing back against these arguments. Carlo Colella, vice president for administration and finance at the University of Maryland, told the Post that the school can’t swing a wage hike at a time when the governor is proposing spending cuts. Maintaining its current wage rate will allow the university to employ more undergrads part-time, she said, increasing it would force the school to cut jobs.