By ISABELLE OUYONG
The cost of being a student increases year by year, but student wages haven’t kept up with expenses at the University of Pittsburgh. Workers across the nation have pressured institutions (the Democratic National Committee), governments (the city of Seattle) and corporations (Amazon) to prioritize a living wage of $15 an hour. Now, the pressure is on the University of Pittsburgh to follow suit.
Currently, student and campus workers are struggling to get by on $7.25/hr. At that rate, a student would have to work at least 48 hours a week, every week, just to pay for in-state tuition. Moreover, campus work is capped at 20 hours per week during the academic year. Low wages force students to take out loans, and only exacerbate the looming issue of student debt. When the country’s total estimated student debt amounts to about $1.4 trillion, how can students be expected to foot the bill while making $7.25/hr? For students who need more than a poorly paid parttime job, working additional off-campus jobs is the only option.
As the most essential component of our University, students should not need to scrape by on low wages. Instead of worrying about making enough money for rent or food, higher wages would allow students to spend more time on academic work, on enriching their community and on leading meaningful personal lives.
Some might argue that doubling the current wage is excessive. The cost of living in Pittsburgh does fall short of $15–that is, without the invisible costs. According to the MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology)Living Wage Calculator, at least $10.32/hr is enough to support yourself, given you have a year-round full time job. However, the number doesn’t account for studentspecific costs, like textbooks or saving up for inevitable loan payments.
Additionally, a higher wage is essential to accessibility for nontraditional students. The US Department of Education defines a nontraditional student as one affected by one or more circumstances such as financial independence from parents, having a dependent, being a single caregiver, or being employed full time. Studies show that approximately 74 percent of undergrads can consequently be considered “nontraditional.”
Part-time employment paying $7.25/ hr is simply not workable for student parents, for example. In fact, for an adult with a single dependent, the cost of living rises drastically to $22.32. It is essential that we make educational opportunities accessible to student parents and other nontraditional students.
Additionally, the University’s exorbitant housing options add an additional burden to families paying for college. On paper, the newest on-campus dorm, Nordenberg, costs about $600 a month. Tack on a couple of thousand dollars per semester for board, since there’s no kitchen. Off campus South Oakland buildings are often run-down, with unmonitored damage.
Instead of building overpriced housing, Pitt could expand accessibility by providing childcare, extended tutoring hours, free parking, and viable oncampus employment opportunities. The University is investing little money in rebuilding the community or local economy, and a lot into what amounts to… glossy, expensive advertising material. The 50-Year Campus Master Plan replaces a community vegetable garden with “residential” proposals.
Last year, the University quietly opened a volunteer food pantry on campus to address food insecurity, although it is hosted by the Bellefield Presbyterian Church, rather than an on-campus entity. After objecting to Oakland’s status as a food desert, and a lack of affordable produce, students led a protest that successfully urged the University to transparently communicate the timeline of a grocery store project, which was also prompted by student demand following the closing of an IGA and a 7-11. The movement to raise wages to $15 isn’t just a way of putting money back into the pockets of students and local businesses; this initiative is just one part of creating a much larger power shift that acknowledges student realities.
The University has a moral obligation to both students and the surrounding residents to take part in the national dialogue to raise wages. As one of the largest employers in Pittsburgh, and as an institution of higher learning, the University of Pittsburgh should be a leader in social responsibility. Since PA law prevents the city from legislating a wage higher than the state minimum, individual institutions must make the first move. There are precedents, too: This year, in line with his consistent support of $15/hr, Mayor Bill Peduto signed an executive order to raise city worker wages to that amount by 2021. Even UPMC agreed to raise wages to $15 by 2021, after extensive pressure and a one-day strike.
However, by 2021, $15 may not suffice anymore. Community advocacy groups like Hospital Workers United, Pittsburgh United, and the fast food workers of Fight for $15 have been pushing change for years. Through petitions and campaigns, student groups like USAS (United Students Against Sweatshops) Local #31 and PA Student Power Network have also been working for increased wages. It is time for the University of Pittsburgh to step up.
Isabelle Ouyong is a NewPeople fellow, a student at the University of Pittsburgh, and a member of USAS #31. F