Tony Rasmussen admits he is a workaholic.
“It’s become a bit of a joke” among his co-workers, the 27-year-old communications major said. “I pretty much don’t stop working seven days a week.”
Rasmussen said in a typical week he logs between 40 and 60 hours as a communication coordinator for Portland State’s Campus Recreation department and as a web developer for the student government.
For his effort, Rasmussen, whose jobs are paid for under Portland State’s student stipend system, receives about $1,000 month. With a conservative estimate of 40 hours worked per week, Rasmussen makes about $5 an hour.
Rasmussen’s experience with the student stipend system is not unique.
In a survey conducted by the Vanguard of 50 students who receive monthly stipends from the university, nearly all the respondents reported working more hours than described in their job descriptions. While the average commitment level for student stipend positions is about 15 hours, most students reported working upward of 25 hours per week, and many reported working 30 or more.
Stipends are used to compensate students for what the university describes as “para-professional” jobs around the university, positions that are intended to provide educational experience rather than just a source of income. The positions pay a flat monthly rate rather than the hourly rates other types of student employees receive. Student who receive stipends include student group coordinators, University Studies peer mentors and graduate assistants.
The stipend amounts are based on the perceived commitment level of the position and range from about $100 to $855 per month. Graduate assistants and peer mentors receive up to 12 credits worth of tuition remission in addition to their stipends, while student group employees do not.
The most common positions have an expected commitment level of between 15 and 20 hours per week and pay between $475 and $680 per month. At that rate, if the students who receive a stipend would average slightly over $7 per hour, or approximately minimum wage.
The reality of how students use the stipend system, however, is very different from the way the system works on paper. Students who responded to the Vanguard survey reported working far more than the 15 to 20 hours their positions assume, but their monthly income remains the same. This means that like Rasmussen, students are averaging only about $5 per hour if their stipend is divided by actual hours worked each month.
A university committee has been formed to review the Portland State’s current stipend model, and plans to propose changes to the system in time for them to take effect next year. Among the things the committee is considering are the amounts stipends pay and the expectations and responsibilities of stipend positions.
The committee will hold public hearings on Feb. 23 and 24 to get student input on proposed changes to the current stipend model.
“Most of what’s been looked into has been raising the stipends to account for economic changes,” said Myron Kingsbury, a student who serves on the stipend committee.
When it comes to lending student perspective about stipends for the committee, Kingsbury can speak from personal experience. He receives $855, the highest stipend level, for being station manager at KPSU, the student radio station. [Ed. note: Kingsbury is also a comic artist for the Vanguard, for which he receives $100 a month.]
Kingsbury, like many other students who receive stipends, relies on his stipend as a primary source of income, although he also receives some financial support from his grandparents and some hourly income as a sound technician for the Popular Music Board.
“I don’t think there has ever been a time where I’ve worked 20 hours a week or below,” he said.
Kingsbury said that the committee has discussed the fact that many students rely on their stipend income.
“A lot of students who work at the university do it because they need the income, not just for fun,” he said. But he also sees some potential pitfalls to increasing the levels of expectation and compensation for student jobs. “When you’re compensated at a professional rate, you have to do a professional job.”
Aimee Shattuck, chair of the review committee, said a 10 percent across-the-board stipend increase is being considered, but such a change will depend largely on whether the Student Fee Committee agrees to raise the student fee.
“It will truly be up to the SFC whether we want to implement this next year,” she said.
Stipend positions may not pay a living wage, but they were never intended to, according to Wendy Endress, dean of students at PSU. The incentive to pursue the positions is supposed to primarily be the educational and leadership experiences they provide.
“Students who engage in these leadership opportunities and want them to be living-wage paid positions may not have a realistic idea of what the opportunity is,” Endress said. “They’re a hybrid opportunity. They’re a leadership and learning opportunity and students who choose that kind of opportunity also get some financial enumeration to acknowledge their contributions.”
The pay and commitment levels for stipend positions are intended to encourage students to engage with the campus, without encouraging them to treat the positions like a full time job, Endress explained.
When the stipend system was developed a decade ago, “It was very difficult to create some campus life initiative because students were seeking employment,” Endress said. “The stipend affords students at an economic disadvantage the opportunity to engage co-curricularly.”
Out of a concern that higher hours would distract students from academics, the maximum commitment level for stipend jobs was also set at 20 hours per week.
The committee has discussed the issue of students depending on stipends as a primary source of income, Shattuck said, but there has been some consensus that encouraging students to work more than 20 hours a week should not be the goal of the program.
“Our biggest concern is that we are supporting students in being successful students. Part of that is having a position that allows you to get experience,” she said, “but we also need to be mindful that students need to study and be in class.”
If students put in more than 20 hours a week, “To me that’s not a student leadership opportunity, that’s a full-time professional position,” Endress said. “It becomes a concern when students do that and can’t be academically successful.”
The university’s position is backed by a legal opinion from the Oregon State Attorney General’s office. In 1995, the university inquired with Department of Justice if it would be violating state law if stipend positions paid less than minimum wage.
“Stipends are not subject to state of federal minimum wage laws,” Assistant Attorney General Steven S. Brier responded, as long as the stipend positions do not displace employees who would have otherwise been hired by the university.
Though it may be discouraged, many students rely on stipends as a primary source of income. Many students also hold more than one stipend job, some as many as three or four.
Rasmussen, for example, said he relies on the income from his stipends for virtually all of his discretionary spending. Financial aid covers rent, tuition and books. “Everything else is stipend,” he said.
Other students who rely on their stipends for income get by through financial support from their families.
Senior David Radford, for example receives a $475 per month stipend as a University Studies peer mentor, but he also lives with his parents, meaning his stipend goes primarily to paying for gas for his car and leisure activities.
“As a mentor, it’s not enough to pay the bills,” Radford said. “Considering the amount of work put in for $400 a month, it just seems like we get a lot less than minimum wage.” However, the fact that as a mentor he receives 12 credits of tuition remission makes the job worthwhile, Radford said.
So why put in so much time and energy for such low pay?
One theory is that many stipend jobs, such as student government or student media, face a significant amount of public scrutiny, and in terms of expectation of quality, the bar has been set very high.
“There is tremendous social pressure to perform at a certain level,” Rasmussen said. “Students are willing to break themselves.”
When he served as communications director for student government last year, Rasmussen said, he became keenly aware of how public student employees successes and failures could be. That provides and incentive for people to invest large amounts of time and energy into their jobs, he said.
Many students also invest heavily in their stipend positions precisely for the experience the positions are intended to provide: the opportunity to gain leadership skills or professional experience.
Rasmussen could do similar work for much higher pay elsewhere, and has in the past. But he said he finds his jobs at PSU more enjoyable than the one he held for four years at a Fortune 500 software company.
“A large part of it is just being involved on campus.”
Even though the pay is low, it certainly encourages students to get involved, Rasmussen said.
“The majority of student stipend positions could exist without pay,” he said. “But students would not put the time in to get significant results.”
Prior to his current positions, Rasmussen also worked as ASPSU communications director last year and marketing coordinator for Campus Recreation two years ago.
Despite the low pay, “I would probably end up doing it anyway because I want to be a teacher, and it looks great on a resume and it’s great experience,” Radford said of his position as a peer mentor.
?”Additional reporting by David Holley