The recent increase in student wages for on-campus jobs at Muhlenberg was a long-awaited victory for student employees. Along with this victory comes a new challenge for both employees and employers alike. Departments such as the Academic Resource Center (ARC) are examining how an increase in salaries could affect their budget usage.
Tutors and learning assistants (LAs) are paid by the hour, whether they are working with a student individually, preparing for workshop lessons, attending faculty meetings or facilitating workshops. The majority of the organization’s budget is dedicated to student salaries, 35 percent of which comes from endowment funds solely for the ARC. However, the fact that the ARC’s payment system depends on the supply of tutors and the demand of students seeking academic assistance makes it difficult for the department to foresee just how much of that budget will be dedicated to salaries. For this reason, the ARC seems to be paying strict attention to the activity of each of their employees to make sure that the portion of the budget dedicated to salaries is being spent appropriately. The ARC’s dramatic shift from past years’ policy enforcement is difficult for student workers to contend with.
For example, an anonymous employee, who serves as both a tutor and LA, explained how LAs used to have a “soft” limit of working ten hours per week, meaning that it was not a major problem if an LA went over ten hours. Due to the increase in student wages, there is now a “hard” limit of nine hours per week that LAs are not allowed to go over. This has been an issue for some LAs in that nine hours is not always enough time to carry out all of their responsibilities, and if they go over that limit, they are not compensated for it. The anonymous source elaborated on their personal concerns: “…cutting LA hours (at least for me) isn’t as simple as going to one less lecture or doing one less hour of workshop prep, it has a knock on effect that makes me less effective and less useful to the students…I need to work more than nine hours per week in order to do my job effectively.”
Gianna Anzalone ‘24 has been working both as a tutor and LA since the spring semester of her freshman year and is now working as an LA for courses in organic chemistry. Anzalone described how her typical week of work as an LA includes two-hour workshops twice a week and three hours of lecture content, leaving her with only two hours for prep time for workshops, weekly meetings, assisting students per request, and more. She said, “I think it’s really great that we got a raise, raises are normally never a bad thing. I just think with the budget cuts they received, it’s kind of hard to see the benefits of having a raise just because our hours are a lot more restricted now. That’s not by any means the ARC’s fault; they unfortunately do not have a say in their budget and I don’t think they had a say in our raises either…but it’s just hard…we thought a raise is supposed to be a good thing. But we do the math, [and] we are losing money being restricted to nine hours.”
“we thought a raise is supposed to be a good thing. But we do the math, [and] we are losing money being restricted to nine hours.”Gianna Anzalone ’24
Issues related to the limitation of hours in the ARC are affecting tutors as well as LAs: “I do know that I have plenty of hours open to tutor and the ARC is not giving me more people to tutor, despite there being a need. The insulting thing about all of this is that the ARC told us that all of their workers would receive a raise: LAs from $10 to $11 per hour and tutors from $8 to $9.25 per hour. However, with the new hour limitations, it is essentially a pay cut. Cutting workshops is not new, but I think it is a slimy way to save money. Usually if a workshop averages under 5 people per workshop for several weeks, the ARC will cut the workshop,” said the anonymous source.
“I want to be really clear on this: it’s a good problem to have. It’s important to support wage increases,” says David Hallowell, the assistant dean of academic life who oversees the ARC. Hallowell explained how the ARC is a unique organization in terms of its reaction to increased student wages due to its “supply and demand” model that is inherent in the tutoring system.
Hallowell explained this in further detail with the following statement: “What we have done to make sure that we’re being budget conscious is really just to make sure that we are being as disciplined as we can by adhering to the policies and practices that are put in place for the existence of the Academic Resource Center…which is something we have always had to do, but becomes more important given the wage increase–just making sure that there aren’t any inefficiencies…we have to make sure that we don’t have a large number of tutors who aren’t working, which seems weird, right? It’s contrary to what you would think…but there’s a cost associated with training someone and not using them. So, it’s about making sure that we not only are staffed appropriately to meet demand, but also making sure that we don’t have significant excess supply in various areas.”
“What we have done to make sure that we’re being budget conscious is really just to make sure that we are being as disciplined as we can by adhering to the policies and practices that are put in place for the existence of the Academic Resource Center…which is something we have always had to do, but becomes more important given the wage increase…”Assistant Dean of Academic Life David Hallowell
Hallowell asserted that the department has not done anything to artificially limit the number of tutors and workshops as they remain consistent with numbers in past years. His data reported that 273 individual and small-group sessions have already been logged, as well as 99 course-specific workshops have already been hosted “with approximately 295 unique students in attendance at one or more.” The ARC also recognizes that there are multiple reasons, both logistical and pedagogical, why workshops could be low in attendance. Hallowell described how the ARC works with learning assistants and faculty alike when this is the case to assess what needs to change.
Even so, Hallowell also noted how this change may include scheduling workshops less frequently: “In other cases, you know, there have been times where, because of the structure of the course, we have taken out some weeks of workshop, and we’ve replaced it with individual office hours. So we just tried to be as flexible as we can, while also being good stewards of the budget.”
Learning assistants and tutors seem to be generally understanding of the necessary actions the ARC has taken to navigate the increase in student wages. Despite the anonymous employee’s criticism of the ARC, they also noted, “I think that the ARC could benefit from more support. As of now, they seem to be understaffed and underfunded. Ideally the administration would give them more money so we can support our students. This really isn’t the ARC’s fault but rather the administration’s.”
Anzalone also expressed how employees in general have been understanding of what the ARC has had to do in response to the increase in wages. Along with this understanding has come the willingness of some students to rearrange their working schedules and to split up responsibilities with co-workers. Upon reaching out to Hallowell about her concerns regarding being unable to complete her work in the span of nine hours per week, Anzalone stated how the ARC has been helping her to navigate these changes by working with her learning assistant partner.
“Instead of prepping all the worksheets together each week, I handle the Wednesday ones, he handles the Sunday ones, and it works. I definitely prefer doing them together just because I find it easier to be able to understand what’s on the worksheet or recall it a lot easier, but I understand that we couldn’t go over our hours, and David was very nice and clear about that in terms of his response.”
The anonymous employee previously mentioned did not have a similar reaction to the change in hour limitations: “I spent the last two years constructing a workflow that matches ten hours per week…they are forcing us to work less hours, which is a significant burden.”
The increase in student wages has been a challenge for various departments as they navigate how to compensate students fairly while working according to budget. Anzalone expressed how her experiences with the ARC throughout her college career have generally been positive and expressed hopes that the employees and department can work together to reward students for their work: “There’s never really been any concern up until this issue…I love doing this job, I wanted to be a learning assistant especially for [organic chemistry] because it was my learning assistants that helped me get through the class…Obviously, it would be nice if their budget could increase, [but] that is not something they have control over. So, I definitely think that David has done the best with what he’s been given…I think [the increase in student wages] was done with the greatest intentions, but I think the execution and the budgeting didn’t align.”