BYU students making minimum wage struggle to make ends meet

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A student employee at the Cougareat Subway prepares a sandwich for a customer. Low-paying student jobs rarely cover a student’s living and schooling expenses. (Ty Mullen)

Tyler Saunders was hired to do low-level accounting at the BYU Store two years ago. He was hired at slightly above the federal minimum wage: $7.25. After trainings, raises and promotions he now earns over $10 an hour, but he still does not make quite enough to support himself as a student.

“It covers rent, and then the rest goes to regular expenses and then it all gets dumped into tuition, but it never covers all of it, so my parents always make up what I don’t,” Saunders said.

Many BYU students spend a significant portion of their week at work earning the money they need to help them get through school. Rarely does their income cover all their basic costs of living and schooling.

Students supporting themselves

According to BYU’s Admission Services website, a student at BYU will spend about $12,970 outside of tuition for two semesters of school. This estimate may be high as it includes a meal plan, healthcare and money for transportation.

A student supporting themselves on minimum wage would need to work 55 hours a week while simultaneously taking two full-time semesters to make the $12,970 two-semester living cost estimate — and that’s before tuition.

“When students declare to me, ‘I’m going to graduate debt free,’ I’m immediately supportive and then I think, ‘Is that possible? How would that happen? What would it look like?’” said BYU Financial Fitness manager Paul Conrad.

Conrad has worked on a theoretical plan to help some students be able to graduate debt free on their own. From initial calculations, he saw working a low-wage job part time all year does not quite cover all the expenses of a typical college student for two semesters, even if they had another way to pay for tuition.

However, if a BYU student could find a way to cover tuition, they could spend summers working full time to build up savings to supplement a part-time job during the school year. Using this method, a student could graduate without debt on their own.

A student working minimum wage can make $5,800 from working 40 hours a week for the 20 weeks they are not in school, and $4,640 if they work exactly 20 hours a week during the school year (32 weeks), which totals $10,440 — just a few thousand under the projected cost of attendance without the tuition. A student working a low wage job at $9 or $10 an hour could possibly make enough money if they worked these hours throughout the year.

Individual circumstances

Not all students will be able to work full time in the summer or part time during the school year.

There are many campus jobs available that can work with a student’s schedule and allow them to work the amount of time they feel they are able. Hours at campus jobs range from two hours to 25 hours a week while students are in school, according to Jarvis.

Megan Judd worked at the Cannon Center and at the Cougareat before getting her current job editing at the Religious Studies Center. She said she enjoyed the half-off card and the free meals from working in food service, but overall, she said she didn’t really enjoy the work.

During the school year, Judd worked about two shifts in the Cougareat each week. She said it was probably possible to support herself at a low-wage job, but during the school year it would be much more difficult.

“I made a lot of money when I was working full time during the summer,” Judd said. “But I would say it’s a lot of work. You would have to put in all the hours.”

Student loans can also help a student make it through the school year if they don’t have access to other aid.

The Financial Fitness Center has a page on their website to help students determine whether it is a good idea for them to get a loan.

“Students have to know their own energy level, their own stamina level … each student has to find that line,” Conrad said.

Minimum wage

The federal minimum wage has been stagnant since 2009, resting at $7.25. The State of Utah has not raised its minimum wage above the federal level, though currently 29 states have a state minimum wage set higher than the federal minimum wage.

A student worker at the Cougareat takes a customer’s Chick-fil-a order. The Cougareat typically starts its employees at $8 an hour, slightly above Utah’s minimum wage. (Ty Mullen)

BYU Cougareat manager Scott Pinkham said they recently decided to pay employees a little bit higher than minimum wage. The lowest starting pay in the Cougareat is now $8, and there are many opportunities for raises.

“We don’t want to keep people at the lower rate because then you get people who are job hopping … we make a conscious effort to not pay minimum wage, to pay a little bit more,” Pinkham said.

BYU economics professor Michael Ransom said there are few benefits to having a minimum wage.

Minimum wage is often used as a political game, and a raise in the minimum wage might not always help people who are in poverty, Ransom said.

However, Ransom said one benefit from a minimum wage is it gives a point of reference.

“It might provide some benefit for people to bargain with potential employers,” Ransom said. “They may realize that they have skills and so they should be making more than the minimum wage. And so, this would give them some kind of reference point for what they should think about for their potential pay.”

Effect of a minimum wage change

According to Ransom, a small raise in the minimum wage would probably have a very small effect on BYU students.

“It’s not going to affect very many students so it’s not going to affect the decisions of the employers either,” Ransom said.

Saunders said if the minimum wage were to rise significantly, the BYU Store would have a harder time making a profit since much of its money already goes towards paying employees.

Ransom said some concerns with raising minimum wage are more companies could become more automated, using computers instead of people, hire people who are more skilled rather than those the wage raise was targeted to and offer fewer jobs.

Pinkham said a raise in the minimum wage would likely lower the number of students the Cougareat could employ and cause prices to increase.

“When we raised the (starting) wage we did not raise the amount of labor … so it meant we were going to hire less people,” Pinkham said.

BYU student jobs

BYU Student Employment Office Manager Jenifer Jarvis said there are about 16,000 students who work at BYU, which is almost half of all BYU students. She said there are about 18,000 jobs available on campus.

Some students have multiple BYU student jobs, and some jobs — like laundry, custodial and food service — are often looking for more people to hire, Jarvis said.

Almost all campus jobs pay a little over minimum wage for the starting salary.

According to Pinkham, a low-wage job can teach valuable skills to students. A food service employee in the Cougareat is at BYU for school and not the job, but Pinkham tries to teach students life skills, including showing up on time and wearing a uniform.

Jarvis said low-wage student jobs can help organize time, add opportunities to interact with peers and give students vital experience for their future careers.

Experience can sometimes be more valuable than school work, Jarvis said. Even in a custodial job, a student can get management experience.

Conrad also said work experience can be very valuable in the long run. As a student, he worked in the financial aid office. He said he enjoyed his job and was good at it, so he made it his career.

Saunders said his job at the BYU Store has been very useful because he learns about businesses and sees how the store is run. He plans to get a business-related job after he graduates.

“Students come to the university and the basic idea is they’re going to trade their time for money … but if you’re thinking a little more broadly, you can trade your time not just for money but for a lot of other things,” Conrad said

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