University should invest in student stipend jobs

Every year, hundreds of Portland State students pour their hearts, minds, time and energy into student stipend jobs.

These students are student group coordinators, student government officers, peer mentors and intramural sports coordinators, to list a few. For many of them, committing to their position means lots of long hours, late nights and difficult decisions.

These students will likely spend 25 hours or more – some upward of 40 – on the job in an average week, improving the quality of student experience at PSU by organizing events, advocating for students or producing the very newspaper you are reading right now.

And for their efforts, these dedicated student leaders are paid such a paltry sum that they will be lucky to scrape together ramen money, much less pay the bills.

Stipends pay a flat rate. No matter how many hours a week students work, their monthly income remains the same. The typical student who receives a stipend makes about $475 a month. Compare that to your average minimum-wage earning Wal-Mart employee: if they worked 20 hours a week, they would haul in nearly $700 a month.

Some positions, like University Studies peer mentors, receive 12 credits in tuition remission, but hundreds of other positions do not.

So why is PSU stiffing its student workers? Because they can. The state Attorney General’s office says so. As long as the positions don’t perform a function “vital to the university,” and don’t displace non-student employees who would have otherwise been hired, the university is not required to pay student stipend employees a living wage, according to a 1995 legal opinion.

Stipends are used to compensate students for what the university describes as “para-professional” jobs. The positions are intended to provide educational experience rather than be a primary source of income, Dean of Students Wendy Endress told the Vanguard last week. If the university were to offer more money or acknowledge longer hours, students might lose track of their academics, Endress and other administrators said.

The administration has a point. It would be mighty expensive to pay the 1,000-plus students who receive stipends a living wage, a cost that would likely have to be shouldered by students. Also, clearly students take these jobs to be involved in their campus, not to make a down payment on an Escalade.

The problem is, many students do rely on stipends as a primary source of income. Let’s face it: the average PSU student isn’t exactly of the trust fund variety. Most of us have to work to go to school. When a job requires 20 hours a week or more of someone’s time, it pretty much prevents them from working another job. This means that most students who receive stipends are counting on the cash to make rent.

For students who don’t have the luxury of family support, a rich benefactor, or racking up financial aid debt, the low pay of stipend jobs pretty much prevents them from being able to be a student leader and still make ends meet.

Paying stipend employees a living wage would be a substantial investment for the university, but we shudder at the thought of a student having to pass up a leadership opportunity because they have to put in more hours at Starbucks.

Furthermore, producing quality work in many stipend jobs realistically requires more than 20 hours a week. If the university acknowledged the time and investment students truly put into creating a vibrant campus experience, it would send a positive message to students about how much PSU cares about fostering community.

Luckily, there is a committee at PSU charged with revising the stipend policy this year. The committee is suggesting some changes to how stipends are organized, along with a 10 percent raise to stipend levels to account for economic changes.

The considered changes are definitely improvements, but to us, they’re not enough. Portland State needs to be realistic about its students’ needs, what they use stipend jobs for and what time commitments these jobs necessitate.

Paying stipend students a living wage is a tremendous undertaking, but it’s a reward that the students who create our campus community deserve, and a necessary step to insure that all students have equal access to these positions. The last thing PSU should do is provide a disincentive for students to become engaged with their university.