It can be difficult to be a student at Swarthmore. You are constantly trying to balance school work, a social life, sleep time, and possibly a job. There is always something that might throw your precariously teetering and hard-earned balance into disarray: breakups, friendship drama, bad nights of sleep, and more. Many elements of college culture and student support need to be addressed, but what makes everything worse and discredits Swarthmore’s alleged commitment to justice is the issue of money. While Swarthmore College accumulates wealth, student workers are being paid too little for their labor. All workers should be paid more for one hour of their time, and the college’s failure to do that gives everyone — and especially students who have loans or are from low income/marginalized backgrounds — a trash deal.
It costs a lot of money to attend Swarthmore. Estimated yearly expenses for students totaled a whopping 74K in 2019-2020 (the National Center for Education Statistics does not have comprehensive data for 2021-2022, and 2020-2021 is skewed due to COVID). Even though financial aid is offered, students can’t just forget about their finances. Roughly 60% of students in 2019-2020 received grant and/or scholarship financial aid, which tends to include Federal Work Study. Students who receive Federal Work-Study (FWS) are expected to work on campus to supplement their tuition. A student who receives, for instance, $2000 in Work Study (usually ranges from 2K to 5K), has to work for 170 hours at the middle-tier student wage (11.82/hr) to contribute that $2000. That entails, on average, approximately six hours of work a week before students on $2000 of FWS can use or save their earnings for themselves instead of their tuition. This is an undue burden on students who rely on FWS.
The financial stress doesn’t stop there. If financial aid and FWS are not enough for a student to hit the expected family contribution, their family is either burdened by the expected contribution or the student burdens themself with federal loans (13% of Swarthmore students took out federal loans 2019–2020). First, students can take out subsidized federal loans, which are interest free only during school and a six month grace period. But if that is not enough, students need to take out unsubsidized federal loans, and these start accumulating interest immediately. If that is still not enough, then students and their families may need to seek out private loans or other scholarship opportunities and grants. Maybe a student can attend college after working through these nine circles of pecuniary hell and picking up an ever-growing, potentially interest-laden mountain of debt — but that doesn’t mean that the financial tolls end there. Some students send home money to support their families, others pay back money to families that are burdened by the expected contribution calculated for their family, and still more struggle to cover expenses, such as school supplies and trips to Philly, which cost more than the bare minimum that is occasionally doled out by emergency funds or First-generation Low-Income (FLI) resources.
Surely the administrators at Swarthmore College, who dutifully sing their praises to academic rigor — and say “inclusive” so often that Public Safety would have to beeline me straight to Springfield Hospital if I took a shot each time — must understand that students from low-income backgrounds are quite significantly affected by the huge difference between Swarthmore’s pay level and a living wage. The decision to maintain a low wage tends to disproportionately harm and turn away marginalized students since they are more likely to be low-income or have fewer financial resources, and so it also bears elements of racism, homophobia, and transphobia. Yet, with the measly wages, which add even more stress into the lives of many students, it appears that the administrators don’t really care.
By maintaining such a low wage, Swarthmore has chosen to let class differences more pronouncedly affect the quality of a student’s life. At a school where students from low-income and middle-class families study next to affluent and uber-wealthy peers, poorly-paid labor functionally exacerbates how time is distributed by wealth. Who needs to take a four hour shift in the Science Center and feels the pressure to take additional shifts after a brutal week, and who has the choice to use that time to rest, recuperate, and pursue creative activities at the college? Who has to take a job every semester no matter what, and who can opt into a job only if it is convenient for them? Who schedules their evenings around shifts at certain locations, and who has control over their schedule? Students who rely on money from the college have many more restrictions on their time. If Swarthmore pays more, students can work less and have more choice of how they allocate their time. There will be less financial pressure for students to exceed the suggested twenty hour limit on work and fewer hours will be spent earning the money for FWS.
This is not to say that students who aren’t so confined by the need to work have a particularly good deal either. This year, students will be paid at least $11.24/hr and at most $12.39/hr for hourly work. This is ten years after the Fight for 15 movement began back in 2012. With inflation, it should be a fight for $20/hr by now. Yet here we are, still asking for crumbs nine years after workers first began to agitate for $15 as a right for one hour of labor time. If you believe in the principle of worker’s rights, it holds for your labor as a student worker, too. Student labor maintains the libraries, helps theater productions run smoothly, tutors students, educates prospective Swarthmore students about the institution, and supports dining services operations! All of that is work which deserves a fair wage, and nobody should get paid any less for giving one hour of time. Plus, students deserve to have some pocket money to take care of themselves and enjoy their lives, especially when times get tough. Such a pathetically low wage shatters that possibility.
In 2021, the Swarthmore College endowment rose from 2.1 billion dollars to 2.9 billion dollars. Surely Swarthmore College, with one of the highest endowments per student ratio in the country (ranked 10th), can pay their students properly. Yet they don’t, and despite the excuses all these highly endowed institutions could make about non-liquid assets (which, by the way, are often invested and growing in value), we can predict that they serve their interests ahead of immediate needs for students when they blow money on fancy new buildings or appear to have hired an outside company (Playfair) to run a seemingly costly group icebreaker during orientation. Furthermore, despite such extravagant expenses, the exorbitant endowment generally continues to grow faster than inflation (as measured by the Commonfund Higher Education Price Index).
What makes life at Swarthmore so stressful, on top of everything else I have mentioned, is the growing level of precarity in today’s society and knowledge of the role education can play in insulating us from that precarity. There is always a fear, especially when loans are involved or family is financially burdened, that poor performance in school will hinder one’s ability to insulate themselves, and perhaps family, from precarity. It is terrifying to imagine, after giving up so much money, time, and more, that we might find ourselves struggling for healthcare or a mediocre apartment. But make no mistake that Swarthmore College as an institution is also a contributor to that precarity. A bastion of wealth which disproportionately props up students from fairly wealthy backgrounds, does not pay state or federal taxes, and participates in the financialization of higher education with investments ranging from dubious to reprehensible is an enabler for the concentration of wealth among a small elite and consequent effects on the financial state of everyday people.
As Sara Nelson, president of the AFA (Association of Flight Attendants), proclaimed in an inspiring speech at a Boston rally against corporate greed, we should fight against capital where it is. Swarthmore College is no exception. Making a more democratic Swarthmore which works for all of us will not only ease the burden on all students, and especially those who are financially burdened or low income, but will chip at the structural foundations of unbridled inequality which makes college life and beyond so stressful in the first place.
Let’s all unite and start by getting paid! Work with us at Solidarity at Swat to fight for any worker (faculty, staff, and students are all in this together) who wants to advocate for better working conditions and wages. If you are interested, please fill out our interest form here. We are bringing back our fight for a student worker $15 minimum wage and want to have the backs of all workers. There has been a long history of labor organizing at Swarthmore; it is high time to bring it back and win better working conditions, benefits, and wages for all.