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Minimum wage affects students' earnings off campus

Nov. 16, 2006


Your bank account is practically sucked dry, your pantry is stocked with little else but Fruit Loops, and you owe a $15 late fee at the school library. That's not to mention the fact that rent is due next month and you're still worrying about how to pay for that flat tire.

Sound familiar? Many college students today have taken the initiative to remedy this situation by taking jobs either on or off campus. The Digest of Education Statistics reports that as of 2000, more than half of college students are employed.

From serving tables to working as a part-time tutor for their peers, these students are learning to make their dollars stretch while balancing school and around 20 hours a week in the workplace.

Although some students earn more, most are forced to settle for minimum wage because of their limited work experience. Texas has adopted the federal minimum wage of $5.15 an hour. States can opt to raise this base wage at their choosing. Still, at this rate students are finding it difficult to continue paying for gas, food and other living expenses.

Arlie Jensen, a 21-year-old McLennan Community College student, can attest to the frustration of earning less-than-desirable wages while struggling to keep up her grades in school and work a part-time job.

As a server at Smokey Bones Barbecue, Jensen earns the current base server wage of $2.15 an hour plus any tips she may earn.

"People don't realize we work off tips," Jensen says. She explains that although some days are busier than others, the slower days with less business tend to even out her overall earnings. Like many student workers, Jensen would like to see the minimum wage raised by at least a dollar.

Cassie Pearce is a freshman in music business at Emporia State University in Kansas. Her family requires her to work so she can attend college out of state. While her parents cover a large majority of her tuition costs, she must also contribute by working at a local gas station that pays minimum wage.

"I even worked all summer long at home to save money," Pearce says. "I couldn't find any jobs that would pay me more than $5.25 an hour and were willing to hire me with what little work experience I had."

After an exhaustive search for higher-paying employment, Pearce resigned herself to accepting a minimum-wage job at the mall. "I still feel like my time was worth more, but I just really needed to earn money somehow if I wanted to go to the college I desired."

Although she managed to pocket a considerable amount of earnings for school, much of it has been spent on books, tuition and living expenses during the summer and fall. Pearce now finds herself in the same situation many other students do -- working limited hours for a limited wage and struggling to cover both school and living costs.

"Things would certainly be much easier for both me and my family if the minimum wage were raised," Pearce says. "I think I'd probably get more rest and be less stressed."

Jon Doussard, a student at Baylor University, also admits he would not mind earning more than he currently does at KXXV Channel 25. He differs from most young workers in that he earns above the minimum wage. However, as an editor for ABC 40 in Bryan-College Station, not only is he forced to spend for job-related expenses, but he also must pay for his everyday expenses such as food and bills.

"I have to find a lot of quick fixes on a very tight deadline," Doussard says regarding his work-related expenditures. Regardless, he does not think the minimum wage should be raised. He said he believes that the overall cost of goods would go up if it were.

The College Board, a non-profit organization consisting of 4,500 schools, colleges and universities, reported that this year the average college costs rose faster than inflation, as it has for the past 11 years. For 2006 to 2007, the average cost of four-year public schools is $12,796, while four-year private schools are $30,367. For students whose families require them to help cover college expenses, minimum wage earnings have a tough time standing up against the cost of college.

Even if a person were to work 40 hours a week and take no vacation or sick leave, total annual earnings at the federal minimum wage would total $10,712 before taxes. After per-semester tuition charges are deducted, this would leave a student living on campus at a four-year public college with roughly $2,000 to pay for books and living expenses. As low as the federal minimum wage is and with the cost of education continuously inflating, this puts that same student below the poverty line. Students' struggles in working a minimum wage job involve not only the frustration of earning inadequate funds to cover school and living costs, but also the stress in keeping grades up. The American Council on Education reports that even dependent student workers whose parents' incomes are $60,000 per year are likely to work 20 hours or more a week. On the other hand, independent students with parental incomes of $25,000 work 35 hours or more per week while enrolled. At any rate, the council found that at public and private not-for-profit four-year institutions, students' average GPAs decreased as the number of hours worked increased.

Maria Najm, an international business major, works on average 22 hours a week at Richland Mall while being paid the minimum wage. Although she said her current GPA is acceptable, she said it would be higher if she did not have to put as many hours into her job.

"I am usually tired by the time I get home and so I spend less time on my homework," Najm says.

However, Najm and other full-time students working minimum-wage jobs may soon find that they will not need to work as many hours to cover their school and living expenses. Since last week's elections saw the Democrats take control of Congress, it is likely to become a top priority to raise the federal minimum wage.

California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the soon-to-be Speaker of the House, said she wants to immediately move to raise the national minimum wage. President Bush has said he will go along with raises in the federal minimum wage.

Since minimum wage plays such a big role in the lives of students paying for college costs and other necessities, the possibility of raising the federal minimum wage is a huge relief for many. Although Jensen said she would feel more motivated to work longer hours, Pearce said she will be able to work less and devote more time to her studies.

"Let's just say this means no more last minute cramming ... and definitely no more Ramen!"