Student wages have long been a topic of conversation for Muhlenberg students. In November of 2021, Ava Duskic ‘23 published an op-ed in The Weekly entitled “Let’s add some green to Muhlenberg’s colors.” She stated, “I am grateful for the ability to have a job and continue my schoolwork, but for being invaluable members of the Muhlenberg community, we are worth more than three chicken tenders and a bag of chips.” Since the publication of Duskic’s piece, Muhlenberg’s minimum student wage of $8/hour has not changed.
With the exception of Cedar Crest College, Muhlenberg’s minimum student wage is the lowest of its competitor institutions in the Lehigh Valley. These institutions, namely Lehigh University, Lafayette College, DeSales University and Moravian University, have minimum wages ranging from $8.25-9.25/hour, with students being paid up to $12 for some positions.
Lafayette, Lehigh and DeSales have all raised their minimum wages in the past year. Muhlenberg’s wage, however, has been stagnant since the pre-pandemic world (at least 2019).
Muhlenberg’s wage of $8/hour is 75 cents over the federal minimum wage/Pennsylvania’s minimum wage, both of which currently sit at $7.25/hour. Still, student wages are abysmally low. According to a living wage calculator developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the poverty wage for those living in the Allentown-Bethlehem-Easton area is $6.19/hour, while the living wage is $16.71/hour. Thus, Muhlenberg students are paid significantly closer to the poverty wage than the living wage.
Meg Ryan, vice president for enrollment management, and Greg Mitton, director of financial aid, responded to this, saying “to truly compare our campus wages to these statistics I believe you would have to include the robust financial aid offered to our students as well.”
However, in the instance where financial aid does provide work study for a student, work study is still frequently insufficient to provide for students outside of their on-campus needs. Tony Jack, Ph.D., a Harvard sociologist who received an honorary degree from Muhlenberg, spoke on campus in 2019 about the barriers students face despite receiving enough financial aid to afford college tuition. He pointed out that even schools with no-loan financial aid policies fail to acknowledge that a student might have tuition covered but still struggle to pay for food, trips home during breaks and other expenses incurred at college.
Claire Spenard ‘23 explains that the low minimum wage is “why I work for Sodexo at the dining hall on top of my work study job. I need to make money and work study doesn’t cut it.” Work study positions are included in a student’s financial aid offer, and delineate an amount of money that a student can make through specific on-campus jobs.
“it’s really difficult to be able to balance everything financially when the wages are so low.”James Wynne ’23
James Wynne ‘23 holds a work study position in the history department. Wynne explains that as part of the work study program, there is a cap of what he is able to make. This total is $1800/year, or $900/semester. Wynne says, “I have never made that $900 once… Based on the hourly rate, I mean, it’s just simple math, I would have to work so many hours during the week. And as a full time student, it’s really difficult to do that.”
In addition to his work study position, Wynne works at Syb’s West End Deli. He shares that he works these two positions “just to make ends meet as a financially independent student. A lot of people have other forms of funds that they can rely on. But the jobs that I have are my main source of income. And so it’s really difficult to be able to balance everything financially when the wages are so low. So I think it would just be a form of raising the general quality of life for a lot of students who really depend on these wages.”
Annaliese Collins ‘23 adds, “A lot of us need our on campus jobs to support us, especially if we are paying our own tuition.” While financial aid offers are based on the income of a student’s entire family, these packages neglect to account for students who are self-sufficient or whose families will not be helping them with their tuition bill.
The College justifies the $8/hour work study rate by stating that they do not have enough federal funds to increase wages. Ryan and Mitton explain, “The budget for student pay is funded by both federal dollars and Muhlenberg funds. We request additional funding for work study every year but even with the recent economic changes, our federal funds have not been increased… We have approximately 300 students on campus receiving federal work study funds, at just six hours per week during the academic year those students would exhaust the federal work study budget.”
Meanwhile, Muhlenberg is in the midst of a fundraising campaign with a $111,000,000 goal. To date, the campaign has raised $85,100,000. This begs the question: can any of this money be allocated to student wages?
Rebekkah Brown ‘99, vice president for advancement, explained that the Boundless Campaign is broken up into a variety of different priorities, one of which is the allocation of $30 million to The Muhlenberg Fund, and another of which is $35 million to financial aid.
She says, “I think just overall that between both the Muhlenberg Fund and the financial aid fundraising, both are supporting student wages and student experiences holistically at the College.”
While Brown says that Boundless money can, in theory, be used to increase student wages, students are still waiting to see whether the outcome of this multi-year fundraising campaign will result in an increase in their paychecks.
Ryan and Mitton add, “Our office is reviewing data and as we consider changes to pay rates, we also have to consider budget, and how having fewer student work hours may impact the student experience, like shorter operating hours or fewer support services by departments or offices that rely on student employees.”
Ryan and Mitton acknowledge the essential work done by students on campus to keep the institution running, and state that the student experience may be detrimentally impacted by the loss of any of these positions. Students, however, feel unfairly compensated given the level of importance of the work they do on campus.
Maya Rabinowitz ‘24 works in the Office of Admissions (a non-work study position) and says, “Tour guides are a pivotal part of prospective students’ experiences, and tours are what keep students enrolling (and paying!). Tour guides get endless emails and thank you notes saying our tours were the reason the student attended the school, yet tour guides get $8 an hour for this essential work. Tour guides hold the school’s reputation in our hands and the pay we receive for it is not at all representative of the importance.”
“Tour guides hold the school’s reputation in our hands and the pay we receive for it is not at all representative of the importance.”Maya Rabinowitz ’24
Harry Shmerler is a junior at Lehigh University, and as a tour guide makes $10/hour. This rate is 20 percent higher than the pay of Muhlenberg tour guides. Shmerler still feels that the rate is, “Pretty low… I think that they could pay out more to the guides and fellows because realistically if we convince one kid to come here that’s approx[imately] $250k over the next 4 years, so $10/hour seems a little unfair.”
Even outside of work study, most campus jobs, including those in admissions, still pay just $8/hour, which is completely unrelated to funds allotted for federal work study.
Hannah Verdun ‘24 says, “The wages provided for students on campus are unsustainable. Especially when considering how it’s impossible to uphold the cost of living as a student at Muhlenberg when the only source of income for students throughout the semester is $8 per hour, often with limited hours… When folks are working in positions that work to maintain the function of campus, often with offices that are advertised (box office, library, writing center, tutoring), it’s worth discussing how little students are able to make financially.”
Many other institutions in the Lehigh Valley have tiered systems, where students are paid more for work that requires higher skill levels.
Carolyn Woodward, associate director of financial aid at DeSales University, shares, “we have 3 main wage rates based on experience and the position—$9.25, $9.40, and $9.60.” Lehigh and Lafayette both have detailed charts available on their website, which explain their wage rates. Lafayette’s range from $8.25 to $9.01 and up, while Lehigh’s range from $9.00-$12.00.
Ryan and Mitton state that Muhlenberg does have this system, however, there is no easily accessible information about it on Muhlenberg’s website. They say, “We do have a tiered system. While the majority of campus jobs do share the same rate, there are specialized jobs on campus that require additional skills or training. We are working to review our current data and looking for ways we could provide clarity to the campus community on clear definitions of those different tiers.”
Sarah Coffel ‘21 worked in student affairs and in the office of admissions during her time as a student. She says, “I think the standard $8/hour wage campus jobs paid isn’t fair. At the retail job I worked during my junior year my wage was $10/hour. Muhlenberg has students coming from various socioeconomic backgrounds and those should be factored into the wages paid to student workers. For students who had to take out loans or receive a larger amount of financial aid, a campus job allows them to pay for additional things that fall outside of tuition or room & board. For some students $8/hour is simply not enough.”
“Muhlenberg has students coming from various socioeconomic backgrounds and those should be factored into the wages paid to student workers… For some students $8/hour is simply not enough.”Sarah Coffel ’21
Ryan and Mitton acknowledge the need for students to seek employment off campus, saying, “We understand that some students may choose to hold off-campus jobs for higher hourly rates but campus-based work study jobs are about more than just the paycheck. Work study jobs often allow students to work shorter shifts than many local businesses which could mean that students can squeeze in a shift between classes. Campus supervisors understand that you are a student and may need to adjust your schedule due to your coursework, exams or take a semester off to study abroad. Most importantly, campus jobs allow for professional development within the Muhlenberg community—supervisors are often faculty or staff who also serve as mentors to students, write recommendations for graduate schools and offer a reference during a job interview process. Students who start in one campus job may hold leadership positions within that organization later, some find their profession while others gain valuable real-world work experience that builds their resume.”
There’s no doubting the indispensable value that comes with many on-campus work positions, as Ryan and Mitton iterate. However, this leaves two final questions: Why shouldn’t Muhlenberg students be allowed to benefit from the pros of work study and other campus jobs, while also being fairly compensated for the essential work they do? And, to echo Duskic, isn’t a student’s time worth more than three chicken tenders and a bag of chips?