Mind the cap: students need more work hours

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Today’s students are overwhelmed by tuition hikes and debt obligations. According to Financial Aid Research at The Chronicle of Higher Education, the price of college tuition has grown at twice the rate of average prices since 1998, meaning the inflation rate for college tuition equals twice the rate of average U.S. inflation rates. Fast-growing college sticker prices means that debts are paid down half as fast for every year after graduation. Occidental’s current on-campus employment law, which restricts the number of hours a student can work, is not helping anyone.

Occidental students are limited to 15 working hours per week and $3,100 per year in earnings. Although the cap can be extended upon request to either the Financial Aid Office (for Work Study students) or Human Resource Department (non-Work Study students), the low cap and having to go through an appeals process does no favors for the post-recession college student.

According to a 2012 report by the National Survey for Student Engagement (NSSE), up to one in three students surveyed frequently opted not to purchase certain academic materials because of costs. The American College Health Association found finances to be undergraduates’ number one cause of stress during its Spring 2013 assessment in 2013. Yet Occidental’s policies continue working from an outdated expectation that part-time work is a distraction to the collegiate academic experience.

The college’s argument for a low hours cap is that it allows them to manage student work levels during four of our peak formative years. This is not an unreasonable argument; in the aforementioned NSSE study, 60 percent of full-time students working over 20 hours per week said work interfered with academic performance. But what the policy does not do is provide enough slack for students to address financial stressors on their own terms.

Some students choose to handle their finances by earning cash fast, working during the school year as much as possible to offset their costs. Others choose to invest in the long-term, limiting working hours to focus their energies on school. College policy makers assume that all students can take the latter path, but for many students, $1,600 per semester does not compensate for the $30,000 tuition bill and growing student loan interest. Those who would rather work more than 15 hours per week should not have to battle a human resources department stuck in determining their financial futures for them.

Lifting or raising the hours cap would have large-scale effects on the student worker market. Allowing students to work more hours may shrink the number of available jobs on campus, but students wishing to work more could still gain hours by traditional means. This would encourage students to treat the college as a microcosm of the real-world job market by negotiating hours and requesting overtime.

The consolidation of on-campus jobs would also force students to reach out into the community for jobs such as tutoring and babysitting. Doing so would encourage some students to take advantage of opportunities on campus and others to work off campus. Students with on-campus positions that require over 15 hours per week would have their hours protected, instead of having to split them with a multitude of other students looking to meet their allotted hours.

On-campus employment opportunities may be limited due to the sheer size of Occidental, and the new $10 per hour minimum wage in California also adds pressure to rollback student jobs. The board of trustees and the Occidental Alumni Network can help assuage these problems by directing more finances toward on-campus employment, thereby creating more opportunities for students to work.

At any rate, students must be given the option to work for their money and address financial stressors on their own. A 15-hour cap during the week, or $600 per month in earnings, simply does not give students breathing room during the school year.

Correction: The article originally stated A) that students on Work Study had an earnings cap of $3,100 and students who are not on Work Study had an earnings cap of $3,300; and B) that Financial Aid implemented the 15 hours per week cap. Both types of students instead have a $3,100 earnings cap and can request an extension of the cap to either the Financial Aid Office (for Work Study students) or the Human Resource Department (for non-Work Study students). The Financial Aid Office did not implement the 15 hours per week cap.

Henry Dickmeyer is a senior economics major. He can be reached at dickmeyer@oxy.edu or on Twitter @WklyHDickmeyer.