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Student wages (#1235)

Topics/tags: Grinnell

As most people affiliated with Grinnell know, Grinnell’s student union has expanded to include all student workers [1]. The Union and the College have spent most of this academic year negotiating. They remain far apart on wages. They are closer together on Just Cause processes [2,3]. They seem to agree on the principles of identity rights but not on whether or not those rights belong in the contract [4].

The other day, a student told me they needed clarification about the negotiations. They had heard from the Trustees that the College has a fixed budget. But they felt they’d heard during negotiations that the budget could be changed. I said that I didn’t know for sure, but I assumed that the Trustees think about the fixed overall budget, and negotiators think about how you shift money within that amount. So, for example, you might spend more on student grants and less on faculty salaries, but the total remains the same.

What is that total? I’m not sure. I told the students [5] something like the following.

I know that the Trustees have historically taken 4% from the rolling twelve-month average of our endowment. However, our endowment has changed significantly. It reached as high as three billion dollars. I think it’s down to about $2.5 billion. 4% of that is $100 million. We get a little bit more from tuition. However, we get the vast majority from the endowment. The Trustees have also set aside some of the 4% for a rainy-day fund [7]. I don’t know how much that is.

My numbers must be off a bit, since I see from a recent 990 form [8] that our total expenses are about $190 million per year, including about $80 million for salaries. Damn! I have trouble thinking about numbers that large. We spend a lot on repaying the bonds we took out for the Bear, the HSSC, and other buildings. I assume we’ve taken out bonds for the new dorms, too.

The next back-of-the-envelope calculation the student asked about was the cost of a $1/hour raise for students. Here’s what I said—or something like what I said.

Let’s assume that slightly more than half the students work. I seem to recall that the average student works five hours per week, although that seems low to me. So, 900 students times 5 hours per week times 28 weeks is about $120,000 [9] for each additional dollar per hour for student workers. If we assume ten hours per week, which is what students work in my experience, that would be about $240,000.

Because I don’t know when to stop, I went on a bit.

$240,000 is not a lot compared to the total budget. However, it would pay for approximately two faculty members, including benefits. It would pay for two counselors [10]. If you have a fixed total budget, there’s always a tradeoff.

I’m not at all sure about these back-of-the-envelope calculations. If 70% of Grinnell students receive need-based financial aid [11], I’d assume that 70% of Grinnell students would work. And, as I said, I’ve found that most of my students work about ten hours per week. But I recall the College posting something about that. Let’s see … Here it is!

I was wrong. Only 65% of Grinnell students receive need-based aid. That number feels like it’s decreased since I started. The average aid is $57,342 in grants/scholarships [12]. What about student wages? Here’s what the document says.

Grinnell packaged $2.9 million dollars in student employment to students with financial aid. This represents 4% of the total aid packaged.

Grinnell expect [sic] to spend less than $1.9 million dollars in actual wages for all students, including those who do not have financial aid.

I don’t quite know how to parse those numbers. Fortunately, a convenient slide tells me how many hours students worked over the past few years. In Fiscal Year 2019 (pre-pandemic), it was 254,969. In Fiscal Year 2022 (post pandemic), it was 197,302. I assume that several factors go into the decrease. One might be the new no loan policy. Another might be frustration with what students perceived as low hourly wages at Grinnell; I know some students prefer working in town because they can make more that way. Some who might have chosen to work in the past may be deciding that some jobs (e.g., dining hall) are not worth it. Some students might work more if they were paid more per hour. Of course, some students who have to work more than they’d like to might be able to work less, which is one of the reasons that the Union exists.

Where was I? Oh, I was checking my back-of-the-envelope calculations. The $240K wasn’t a bad estimate. Sometimes my back-of-the-envelope calculations are appropriately accurate. I don’t think the extra $240K budget hit per extra dollar per hour is a reason not to give students a raise. I just wanted to quantify the impact.

I wonder how much the number of hours will go up if they finally reach a sensible resolution for the CAs.

I thought I was done when I wrote that sentence [14]. Then I recalled that I spent more time talking about the budget. What did I say? Something like the following:

Unfortunately, a lot of the budget isn’t fungible [15]. We can’t easily decrease what we spend on salaries, and salaries make up the largest part of the budget. We have to pay interest and more on our bonds and loans each year. I assume energy costs are relatively fixed. Medical costs go up every year. So figuring out where to cut requires examining a much smaller set of budget lines.

I may have included something like that above. C’est la vie. [16]

Postscript: I see that I mused about student wages about six years ago, in musing #299. Time passes. Do I want to see what I wrote? Nah. Perhaps you do. Perhaps I’ll decide to read it and respond sometime this summer. We shall see.

Postscript: I’m not sure what the College’s current hourly offer is, but I recall seeing that it’s $13.25/hour. If that’s the case, it’s about 17% over our peer colleges in the Midwest ($11.28) [17,18] and about 54% over the average student wages at Iowa Private Colleges ($8.61).

Can you predict what I’m going to write next?

I hope so.

It would be nice to see staff wages be about 17% over our peer colleges in the Midwest, too.

Of course, that would be an even bigger budget hit than $1/hour for students. Doing the right thing is expensive! What could we cut to reach those goals? Hopefully, it’s not faculty salaries.

Postscript: When commenting on union activity, I’m supposed to follow our T.I.P.S. and F.O.E. guidelines. Let’s see …

T.I.P.S. — engaging in the following could result in Unfair Labor Practices

  • THREATS: No student employee should be threatened because of their support for the Union. Nope, I’m not threatening anybody. And I didn’t threaten anyone when I was talking to the students.
  • INTERROGATION: No student employee should be questioned regarding their support for the Union. I am not questioning anyone’s support in this musing.
  • PROMISES: No promises of special benefit or favor should be made. I’ve made no promises.
  • SURVEILLANCE: Lawful Union activity should not be surveilled. I dislike surveillance.

F.O.E.s — engaging in the following will not incur Unfair Labor Practices

  • FACTS: Discuss publicly available facts from reputable sources. 990s are reputable sources. Are slide decks reputable sources? Probably. And I’ve made it clear when I’m making WAGs.
  • OPINIONS: Share personal opinions regarding the Union and its objectives (following T.I.P.S.). I haven’t shared any opinions regarding the Union. But I’m not required to.
  • EXAMPLES: Discuss real examples to illustrate perspectives about the Union and its expansion. These are quasi-real. And I’ve made it clear when I’ve estimated. I’m not sure I’ve illustrated a perspective, though.

I do not seem to have tipped off our foes. Alternately, I’ve followed policy. I should be fine.

[1] Not MAP students, but those students receive a stipend rather than hourly wages.

[2] Although Iowa is an at-will state, we shouldn’t say, I’m firing you just ’cause. More seriously, Just Cause policies protect employees by providing clear mechanisms by which employees get warnings and can address concerns before losing their jobs.

[3] Academic Freedom is not a reason to avoid Just Cause. I’m told our newer draft contracts now acknowledge that.

[4] The College’s perspective that most of those rights are guaranteed by law. However, we live in Iowa.

[5] Although I started by answering one student’s questions, we were attending a department event. At some point, I started pontificating. And, when I pontificate, students seem to listen [6].

[6] When I pontificate in musings and ramblings, students seem to read.

[7] Sadly, departments are no longer permitted to have their own rainy-day funds.

[8] 990s are fascinating tax forms that non-profits fill out. They eventually get posted publicly, say to ProPublica.

[9] Mental calculation: 1000 x 5 x 30 is $150,000. Drop it a little. Formal calculation: 900 x 5 x 28 = $126,000. I was close.

[10] I have no idea what a counselor costs. Perhaps $240K only pays for two part-time counselors. It could be three full-time counselors.

[11] Someday, I’ll learn to look up numbers rather than just relying on my memory.

[12] No loans!

[14] More precisely, that sentence, the text that came before it, the postscripts, and the endnotes.

[15] It’s not fungus, either.

[16] la vie. It’s an old joke.

[17] Taken from slide 8 of

[18] I don’t know what colleges the College used in that computation.

Version 1.0 of 2023-05-15.