$15 is a Humble Request

17 mins read

As you may have seen, there’s a petition for a $15 minimum wage for student workers going around campus. The petition, called “$15 For Work,” started just a couple weeks ago but has already garnered strong support from the Swarthmore community (900-plus-signatures support, in fact). 

This reaction is not particularly surprising. Swarthmore’s wages are remarkably low, especially considering the college’s position. Swarthmore has a multi-billion dollar endowment, which grows significantly faster than the inflation it experiences.1 Its president’s salary is more than $600,000/year.2 It’s located in a country where the minimum wage, if it had increased in proportion to productivity since 1968, would be $21.50/hour. It’s located in a major metro area within that country, where above-national-average prices are the norm. It’s even in the habit of touting the depth of its morality in its various official communications.

And yet, wages for student jobs on campus are between $10.78 and $11.88 per hour, low enough that many students who have the option (which does not include international students) go off-campus to find higher-paying work. This rate is at a time when even the American political system has a serious movement for a $15 minimum nationally.

So how can we explain this contradiction between what we might expect of Swarthmore and how Swarthmore actually behaves? Well, consider the analysis presented by Professor John Caskey (in the economics department) in his article, “The Awkward Economics of Private Liberal Arts Colleges.” He analyzed private liberal arts colleges as “prestige-maximizing” institutions, “governed by boards of directors that generally consist of successful college alumni,” whose interests shape the decisions of the college.3 Even though they graduated long ago, those alumni remain interested in the prestige of the college, since that’s the bit of it that continues to affect them.

Of course, it would be too cynical to suggest that the Board of Managers is motivated purely by self-interest. But even when they act through a sense of stewardship for the college, there’s surely a disconnect between their interpretation of the interests of the Swarthmore community and what the Swarthmore community would actually choose for itself. For instance, it’s reasonable to expect that a board member would find it easiest to imagine Swarthmore through the eyes of their past selves, or those of their soon-to-attend grandchild. But that child’s viewpoint is not the viewpoint of a student with different life experiences, let alone that of a member of faculty or staff.

The upshot is that there is a disconnect between the actions of the Board and the interests of the people who make up the college. The board is interested in a narrow, often measurable, usually self-serving set of criteria (post-graduation student employment outcomes, aesthetic appeal of campus, number of applicants rejected, U.S. News rankings, proximity of the student body to a certain curated ideal of a student body, likelihood that their grandchildren will be accepted, etc.) that suits its members’ ends and worldviews. But those criteria are often inimical to the basic goals of Swarthmore community members (learning, making a living, having meaningful social relations, contributing to broader society, etc.).

And in following their interpretation of Swarthmore’s value, the board always seems to work out that the best way to improve the school is to grow the endowment. This is just the paradoxical logic of capitalism. If everything of value is for sale, and money grows on its own, then any spending beyond what is necessary for survival is irrational. In short, the college acts like a homo-economicus, the human being as imagined by an economist, rationally maximizing its wealth so that it can, in turn, maximize its presumed, never-subject-to-interpretation notion of value.

This is not just a theory. We see the priorities of the Board in our everyday lives. We see them in the new dining hall and in the many lawns of campus, we see them in admissions policies like legacy preference, we see them in the decision to raise tuition another $4,148 dollars, we see them in the wages and working conditions of staff, we see them in practices of faculty hiring and tenuring, we see them in the decision to participate in the Chamberlain Project,4 we see them in the ban on ethical considerations in the investment of the endowment, and we see them in a $10.78 minimum wage for student workers.

So let’s consider in more detail one of the ways this disconnect in priorities has played out. The following is a very incomplete history of a struggle to increase the wages of staff, assembled from a preliminary research effort:5

Between 2000 and 2004, there was a movement called the Living Wage and Democracy Campaign. It began as a small group of administrative assistants but quickly grew to include a broader coalition of staff members, garnering faculty and student support along the way. Its goal was to increase wages and representation in decision-making bodies for Swarthmore staff.

When the campaign began, the staff minimum wage was $6.66/hour, far below a living wage in Delaware County. Over the following four years, through the efforts of the group and through joining in solidarity with workers’ movements at Haverford, the campaign achieved a partial success in December 2004: a minimum wage for staff of $10.38/hour, some representation in campus decision-making bodies, and health care for the families of the lowest-paid workers.

The campaign did not succeed in all of its goals: $10.38 was still not a living wage, and staff representation was grossly insufficient. However, the campaign’s victories were a significant improvement over what had come before, and it is an important historical precedent for campus movements to come. 

But the minimum did not increase again until 2013, when it rose to a mere $12/hour for staff. It is deplorable that until December 2004 the minimum was $6.66, and that the minimum did not increase at all between 2004 and 2013. The administration and the Board did not act in the best interests of the Swarthmore community when they made these decisions, since staff are themselves a major part of the community, and it is certainly in their best interest to be paid a living wage.

Finally, just last May, President Smith included the following as a bullet point in an email to the campus: “We are very pleased to share that, after studying the issue for some time, we will increase the college’s minimum wage to $15 per hour. All individuals making less than that will see their pay increased as of July 1. We will also make some additional adjustments to address issues of compression.”

In this statement, we see one side of the tension between students and staff, as, although it might appear to apply to student workers (they are, after all, usually considered “individuals”), it later emerged that the student minimum wage would remain at $10.78. The statement reflects that the administration does not see student workers as real workers.

However, a call to recognize student workers as real workers (implicitly a comparison with staff) cannot be the basis for a movement to increase student wages. To see why, recall President Smith’s mention of “issues of compression.” What she means by this is that there is a rightful hierarchy of wages on campus, and so if the minimum wage increases, higher wages must also increase, or else workers who deserve different wages could find themselves being compensated equally. That hierarchy of wages could be based on any number of factors (importance or strenuousness of the work, deservingness of the worker, etc.), but the principle is always that some workers should make more than others.

Let’s set aside the soundness of the idea of a rightful hierarchy of wages and consider its consequences for campus politics. If we base an appeal for higher wages on the relative disparities between staff and students, we set ourselves up for conflict. We bring attention to all of our differences, and we invite debate over the rightful implications of those differences. What’s more, we even put a strict upper-bound on what either staff or students can win. A staff member might have higher wages than a student, but they still aren’t paid nearly enough.

And there is another, much more significant side to the tensions between students and staff. For one, staff do many things for students that students should be doing for themselves. If someone’s old enough to go to college, they’re old enough to plunge a toilet. But there are also a collection of basic realities which divide staff members and students. For instance, though staff members technically have the option to take a class, long hours and low pay often make a mockery of this right.

However, if we can overcome these tensions, if we can build solidarity across the divisions of the Swarthmore community, the “issue of compression” (instead of pitting students and staff against each other) can actually help us build on our individual successes. A $15 minimum wage for student workers can help staff  win improvements to their wages as well, since it gives them a favorable point of comparison. But to work together like this, we must find a way to organize on the basis of our common interests. 

Thankfully, there is a principle that supports a $15 minimum wage for student workers while still being conducive to student-staff solidarity. In fact, we’ve basically already said it. All the disconnects between, on the one hand, the interests of the board and the administration, and on the other, the interests of the Swarthmore community, lead to an obvious conclusion: Swarthmore College should be run democratically by its staff, students, and faculty.

Democracy may not usually be considered a relevant concept outside of electoral politics, but we see no reason it should not be extended to other domains of life. In fact, we find it self-evident that decisions should be made in the best interests of those affected by them, and that the best way to do this is to have those affected make the decisions themselves. To us, this is real democracy.

Just think of what we might decide to do if we had democratic control of Swarthmore. How would we decide to organize our housing, food, academics, employment, sports, healthcare, and transportation? And what policies for tuition, wages, admissions, hiring, and the endowment would we choose to reflect those priorities? We should have the right to decide these things for ourselves.

So how does the principle of democracy support a $15 minimum wage? Well, at the moment, Swarthmore makes its decisions like a corporation, with an administrative bureaucracy directed by a board. And, just like in a business, it is precisely due to this lack of internal democracy that the positions of employer and employee exist at all: in a democratic arrangement, there are only members. When we call for increased wages for student workers, then, our ultimate standing is that the very title of worker indicates an unfree position within the college.

In other words, there should be a $15 minimum wage at Swarthmore, not because all students need more money — some of us don’t; not because all campus jobs are hard — some of them aren’t; not because $15 is what an hour of our lives is worth — that’s priceless; but because as long as Swarthmore is controlled by a Board of Managers and administered by a bureaucracy in Parrish, everything that we do to make Swarthmore function will be work. And for work, $15 is a humble request.


1.  The trend is charted clearly in Swarthmore’s  2019 Endowment Report. Notably, the divergence between the rate of growth of the college’s endowment and the rate of growth of the college’s costs seems to begin in earnest around 1980, accelerate through the 90s, and continue strong to this day. Can you spell “financialization of higher education?”

2.  We found different numbers in different sources, but we opted for the 2019 figure in “Executive Compensation at Public and Private Colleges,” published in The Chronicle of Higher Education, since it seemed to be conservative.

3.  By “successful,” we think Professor Caskey means “wealthy.”

4.  The Chamberlain Project is a program which has military officers teach courses at liberal arts colleges. See The Phoenix’s April 2021 coverage.

5.  Psalmboxkey’s blog page “Swarthmore College Living Wage and Democracy Campaign” was an excellent starting place.

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