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viewpoint

Notre Dame students risk becoming forced laborers

| Thursday, November 16, 2017

Let’s get this straight: The University of Notre Dame offers generous financial aid packages. But failing to move past this strategy to address the University’s wide socioeconomic inequality, the administration leaves low-income students facing a variety of financial obstacles to participation in the University’s rigorous academic life.

Perhaps this inequality itself drowns our concerns. According to a study by the New York Times, around 75 percent of students at the University belong to the country’s top 20 percent income bracket, and more students belong to the top 0.1 percent of the country’s wealthiest families than belong to its bottom quintile.

This divide transforms the culture of labor at the University, to the detriment of low-income students like myself. See, low-income students generally resort to part-time work to make ends meet — not for “pocket money,” but because non-tuition costs of attendance are overwhelming; in fact, many of our financial aid packages include a “work-study” component that requires us to labor. As a result, many low-income students have experienced the full 20-hour workweek that University policy allows — not because we want to, but because it’s our only alternative.

If taking up part-time work is not a choice that many low-income students have, then by keeping student wage rates low, the University administration gratuitously extends the number of work hours necessary to break even — which seldom happens, even when we break our backs.

The choice to work might appear to be in our hands, to be sure. However, to the extent we work unreasonable hours at the expense of schoolwork and sanity, this is forced labor. Contrary to popular belief, low-income students want higher wages not because we don’t want to work hard, but because we want to work hard at school — not at the Huddle.

In fact, I violated University policy my first semester, working over 20 weekly hours — and up to 30 — because I wasn’t breaking even. As you can imagine, I did poorly academically; besides, I wasn’t sleeping, and began to see a therapist to address my declining mental health. The following semester, however, I made the difficult choice not to work at all. My grade-point average rose by a full integer and I even started making it back to the gym.

Unfortunately, that became financially unsustainable — especially given my participation in summer programs through the University. Though educational, low-income students receive no aid to participate in these programs. Instead, my student financial account has been charged about $4,700 toward the costs of one credit-bearing program last summer. Working for $8.00 hourly, however, the program’s cost amounts to about 590 work hours — almost exactly 20 weekly hours over the course of two semesters. In other words, the entire year’s wages are shot. (Note: Prior to this semester, the lowest hourly rate was $7.80; these were my earnings the past two years.)

Perhaps it was unwise to participate in these programs; I should have known my place, and sacrificed among the most transformative experiences of my time in college — right?

Fortunately, the administration has taken steps to tackle these issues, including the establishment of the Office of Student Enrichment for low-income students with extant needs. But it’s not that simple. Low-income students resort to the Office when they cannot independently make ends meet — precisely because wages are paltry; thus, the administration creates a gratuitous vetting process for our needs. By shifting the locus of control toward them, in other words, they prevent us from making financial decisions as independent adults and thereby undermine our agency. (Besides, the Office doesn’t assist with summer programs.)

Meager student wage rates enforce the socioeconomic status quo, forcing low-income students to labor at the expense of academic success while pricing them out of important educational opportunities. Indeed, did you know only 1 percent of low-income students at the University move up to the highest income quintile later in life? As you can imagine, this fact does not surprise me.

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