I love the University of Minnesota, and there are a lot of reasons I chose to come here. There are a lot of reasons I chose to go to college at all. But there’s only one reason why not going to college wasn’t an option. Every time I imagined myself deviating from the path prescribed by high school counselors, parents, friends and college recruiters, I imagined myself poor and miserable. I think many of us believe this deeply. It’s why we work hard and pay big to be here. Like it or not, my University benefits from that belief. My education was sold to me as a product and as a solution. I bought social mobility.
Our economic reality forces the University into a balancing act. They charge a lot, but students have to believe it’ll be worth the cost. The University tries to downplay the cost of being a student by offering financial services. In effect, they play both sides. “Get a good education and you’ll work a good job and be happy,” as well as, “Ooh I know it’s a lot, but don’t worry. We can help.” Anything that erases our harsh economic realities can be sold as a part of the package of social mobility.
In particular, student jobs can feel like a bargain. Talk about social mobility; I didn’t even graduate and they already gave me a job! Not only that, but it’s right on campus and the boss lets me do homework sometimes. That’s gotta be worth tuition. Or so we’re told during freshman orientation, when we’re taught to find “opportunities” through MyU. Or as administrator Ken Horstman commented when dismissing a $15 minimum wage, “Obviously there are some qualities to working here at the University that you have the advantage of, [advantages] that you may not have at another job in the market.” But what are those advantages? Working in the dining hall doesn’t give you networking opportunities. The University presents it as if student jobs are primarily in service of the students. They aren’t.
The reality is the University employs over 12,000 students. They couldn’t function without student jobs. And they function at an elite level. While the Super Bowl is in town, the University is hosting a number of events, including the NFL Honors show. Not only do students maintain the facilities and prestige of the University in their regular jobs, but many students have been hired to help support Super Bowl events that bring national attention to campus. Yet, despite the value we provide, we are often told that we are the true benefactors of our work. If that’s the case, why do we work multiple jobs? Why do we struggle to afford rent and food? Why do we graduate saddled with debt?
It’s time to be clear about what it means to work as students. We were not given our jobs upon arrival; we applied, interviewed and earned them. These aren’t side hustles or Starbucks allowances, they’re jobs. We work them; we work them well. If the University can afford to host some of the largest events in Minnesota, it can pay its workers a living wage. Ask your boss for a raise. Ask en masse. Ask twice. If you don’t get it, the local Teamster’s union, our coworkers, just won $15 by threatening to strike. We can too.
Chris Mann is a University of Minnesota student and is a member of the student group, Undergrads United.
This letter has been lightly edited for clarity and style.