Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Work Study

Curtis Bowman has posted a very interesting review of Marc Bousquet's How The University Works. The review is wide-ranging and I recommend the entire article to you. One passage in particular, though, struck a chord with me. Discussing Chapter 4: Students Are Already Workers, Bowman writes:

The growth of work-study jobs, as is to be expected, has come at the expense of full-time staff members, i.e., secretaries, library workers, and the like. Consequently, an ever greater percentage of staff-related work is performed by students.
The LumpenProf's oldest Lumpkin has just started college, and along with a host of other brand new experiences has come the new experience of a work-study job. She's working in the dining hall during lunch twice a week. This is part of her financial aid package, and has been a welcome alternative to student loans. But the notion of work-study has always made me uneasy, in much the same way that using prison labor makes me uneasy. The goal of teaching students, or of rehabilitating prisoners, does not fit easily with the notion that an institution might also benefit directly from the cheap labor of these populations. That there is a conflict of interest here should be obvious. And even though Karl Marx himself writes in The Communist Manifesto, that there ought to be a "combination of education with industrial production," I have never been terribly impressed with the revolutionary potential of that particular goal.

Faculty, parents, and students themselves, often tend to focus on the positive aspects of these work-study relationships -- building character, job skills, minimizing student debt, etc. But as Bowman correctly notes, it also means universities are free to hire fewer full-time staff. This union-busting aspect of student work-study perhaps should be an issue in much the same way prison labor is when used to compete with outside workers. And parents and students might also notice, as Bowman writes, that "such steps obviously lead to a decline in the quality of the very institutions that cut costs in the above fashion. Such measures are really little more than a form of slow-motion institutional suicide."

There is also a downside for faculty that often goes unnoticed. Each semester at my institution I meet the new cohort of student workers manning the phones and copy room. But after a recent three-day back and forth over how to send a fax (that ended with me sending the document by snail mail), I begin to suspect that I may be disadvantaged by not having more full-time professional staff helping me in my day to day work.

I was initially very happy about my daughter's work-study arrangement. But now I'm starting to have second thoughts. I think work-study may just be evil. It's difficult for me to imagine, though, turning down the work-study offer and taking out student loans instead. It's equally difficult for me to imagine going on a crusade on my own campus against the use of student workers. I don't think students, faculty, parents, or even staff would support it. What do others think about this? Is this a real issue? Or is the LumpenProf just worrying too much?


  1. Interesting --- I've started asking my students if they really have done a cost-benefit analysis of their work study vs. grades over the quarter ---- cause a lot of our stuff still pays minimum wage (775 in CA), and I pointed out that even the ones that run 10 an hour aren't really helping you if you have to stay a year longer or pull a C average instead of a B because of time constraints. I'm at a public school. though, so I can tell them to think about taking loans and no work at all about one quarter a year and pack the hard classes in that quarter.

    But you bring up an interesting point --- the work study positions are there, structurally, all the time, just with different individuals constantly cycling in and out of them, making it a permanently newbie, inefficient position. Hmm. I'm going to ponder this further.

  2. Hmmm. I did a work-study job throughout my B.A., and overall I think that it was a good thing. 1) Work study jobs work around your academic schedule. Given my financial profile as an undergrad, I would have had to work whether or not it was at the university - as is the case for many of my students who don't get work-study funding. Non-work-study employers typically care a lot less about fitting your hours into your academic schedule, which can lead to students (a few that I have currently have this set-up) doing a full-time load all on Tuesday/Thursday, for example, which I'd say is a lot more harmful to a GPA than having the hours scheduled in between courses.
    2) That said, I've always felt like work study jobs that bear no relationship to students' marketability in a post-degree future are kind of beside the point. A job in the dining hall does not give a student marketable skills. A job doing admin. work in a department, while maybe not directly connected to the student's major, can. Professionals in a lot of areas need to know how to send a fax. (Actually, I was surprised by your example, because typically I just send my own faxes, as do most of my colleagues.)
    3) The best work-study set-up (I think) is one in which students get to keep the same job, or at least the same couple of jobs, over four years. That means that you don't have different student workers semester to semester - rather, you have the same student workers over a stretch of time. This means that you don't need to train each semester, and that they can take on more responsibility as they gain more experience (this is how it works for students at my university in most cases - you start out working at the library or in a department office or whatever as a freshman or sophomore and you're there until you graduate).

    In other words, I think work study is valuable if it's administered responsibly by the institution. I think it can be, at its best, an educational experience that allows students to make money, while at the same time it privileges their coursework as the most important thing.

    I see your point (which follows Bowman's) about how work study jobs can come at the expense of hiring full-time staff members. But I also think that work-study can be a really positive thing for students who *would otherwise be working at jobs with less flexible hours and equally sucky pay.* Ultimately, I'd rather see students working for the institution - if the institution is putting their academic needs first - than working for Walmart or Applebees.

    Note: my w-s job as an undergrad was in the production department of the university's newspaper. When I got the job, I was a journalism major, and it would have been awesome experience had I continued on that career path. Even now, though, it's good experience that I've got under my belt: I know how to do some layout/design stuff, about how to organize a publication to meet a deadline, etc., which has helped me with advising a student publication, and which has helped me with understanding the publication process generally in my scholarly work. I think that was really valuable experience, and it gave me money, and it allowed me to put academics before work, even though I needed to work in order to afford college. I'm not sure I'd say the same had I been washing dishes in the dining hall.

  3. Sorry about the length of that comment! I didn't realize I had so much to say!