Student Pay Increase: A Long Time Waiting and a Lot More to Come

Associate+Dean+of+Work+Paul+Bobbitt+collaborates+with+Matthew+Tkach%2C+a+student+on+the+Work+Program+crew.

Carlos Wyrick/Staff Photographer

Associate Dean of Work Paul Bobbitt collaborates with Matthew Tkach, a student on the Work Program crew.

“What I’m excited about is this feels like the first step in the process, not necessarily the end of the process,” said Paul Bobbitt, the associate dean of work at Warren Wilson College.

Students were notified the morning of March 17 that the Work Program would be seeing big changes, seemingly out of the blue. There was no warning or preliminary email to make students suspicious. Nonetheless, students found out that their pay was increasing from federal minimum wage and their contract hours were shifting to a two-tiered model.

In this new model, students are able to receive $9.05 per hour for their work and have the ability to be on either a 120-hour or 240-hour contract. Not only is this a big deal because students are getting paid more, but also because students who transition from a 150-hour contract don’t need to worry about their financial aid packages. 

“There’s no pay decrease for students,” said Bobbitt. “There’s an hours reduction, but with the rate of pay increase, for that main tier, we’re at the same dollar value, which is important because we didn’t want to reduce what students were getting from work in the process.”

Students who transition from a 225-hour contract to a 240-hour contract will see an increase in overall dollar amount to their financial aid packages, increasing from $1,631.25 to $2,172. This increase though, comes with the expectation that students are in leadership roles with defined positions — not just working extra hours on their crews.

“Those folks that are on 225-hour contracts right now,” continued Bobbitt; “We’re talking to supervisors like ‘What is that position that they hold? Let’s talk about that.’ We expect the vast majority of those people to kind of matriculate over into the 240-hour contract in the fall, with some potential openings for folks to step up into those positions should they happen.”

He also spoke on how, due to COVID-19 hitting the school hard financially, there are a limited number of these 240-hour contract positions available — it’s currently largely for those already on 225-hour contracts. He does hope that as the school rebounds, more of these leadership positions will be able to be adopted into the program so more people can step into these positions.

However, students new to Warren Wilson might not know that this change has been a rumbling among the student body for upwards of two years now. Before the COVID-19 pandemic became our day-to-day, the Student Workers Union (SWU) on campus created a petition surrounding the need for a financial and structural shift in the Work Program at Warren Wilson. Bridget Palmer, a senior forefronting the SWU while also being heavily involved in Student Government and sitting as a student trustee, recounted what the demands were and how their push played out.

“One of the first things we felt should be a major goal is getting a pay raise for students, so that’s been a goal from the beginning of the Student Workers Union,” Palmer said. “We did a petition in March of 2019, so two years ago now, that garnered a couple hundred signatures across campus, and we were petitioning for a pay raise and a change in the structure of how we’re paid so students can have the option of getting a paycheck instead of just the scholarship or financial aid package that we’re offered now. Which, this ended up being unsuccessful due to some federal regulations that control the way that we’re paid because of the federal work study program and work college consortium guidelines.”

Following the demands from the SWU, the Work Program Office (WPO) began to look at models for how student pay could change in the near future. According to Bobbitt, though the school couldn’t provide the option of cash-in-hand payment, the WPO and other administrators were ready to move forward in increasing student workers’ pay on campus. By the time 2020 rolled around, students across campus were murmuring about a potential change in the pay of students, but everything changed when the pandemic took hold.

COVID happened and we sustained some pretty stiff budget ramifications, as I’m sure you’re aware,” Bobbitt said. “And so we needed to kind of step back and reconfigure what we were thinking about, based on a post-COVID budget landscape, what we could make happen.”

This all goes to say, Bobbitt and other administrators at Warren Wilson are not opposed to a cash-in-hand system — it’s just expensive and hard to implement. But, as Warren Wilson rebounds from COVID-19, he’s hopeful the talks can open up again. Until then, students returning next semester and moving forward are able to reap the benefits of the hard work from the SWU, WPO, and on-board administrators who pushed for better pay for students. However, for students who are graduating this year, like Palmer, this triumph leaves a more bittersweet taste in the mouth.

“It’s sad — really sad, honestly,” they said. “But I’m a middle class person. I’m not in dire need of a larger financial aid package or anything. So it’s not as hurtful for me as it would’ve been for a working class student who really could’ve used that the past four years. But, I’m happy for the rest of our students who will get to enjoy that.”

One of the biggest hopes for this change is that it provides more flexibility to the students. Bobbitt spoke on the fact that, especially due to the mental health of students right now, with the 120-hour contract averaging out to eight hours a week, students can take a lot more liberties with how they schedule their time. He gave the example of having less hours to work per week due to averaging two hours less every week, or working the ten hours students are currently used to in order to take three weeks off during the semester. Palmer, on the other hand, spoke on how this flexibility might give students more of an opportunity to work off-campus until a cash-in-hand option is available.

“I was concerned that it wouldn’t be worth the change if we couldn’t offer cash,” said Palmer. “Which is still a concern, but I think with reducing the hours while increasing the rate, that will allow students that really need cash more availability to go off campus and find jobs that pay them actual paychecks instead of financial aid packages. So I think it is ultimately a net good and I do hope the WPO will stick with that commitment to eventually offer cash-in-hand.”

Bobbitt, though, has said his biggest goal with this change is to make sure students at Warren Wilson feel heard. He and others at WPO recognized students were feeling underappreciated by how they were treated in the Work Program, particularly in regards to the pay. Bobbitt is also hoping that with this shift in the structure of the Work Program, students will be encouraged to engage in new or different ways with the program at Warren Wilson.

“I want students to feel heard, right?” Bobbbitt said. “I think that’s a very important aspect of this is to say, ‘Yes, we heard you, and we recognize you.’ It’s not just being heard but also ‘we recognize and we value you.’ I think that’s paramount for me is that this isn’t a change to get students to stop bitchin’, right? That’s not the goal at all. The goal is to say, ‘Yeah, we got it, and we understand completely and we’ve been working on it and we’re happy to say this is our change.’ And then the other thing is about that engagement, right? I hope that students will feel more empowered to engage at a different level because they feel valued in a different way.”

Moving forward, it’s been expressed that this pay increase is going to be the only major change to the pay of students in the near future. As Bobbitt put it, the change needs to settle before we can tweak it again. Outside of the pay increase and hours restructuring, WPO may have some exciting announcements in the future, especially for incoming freshmen and those soon to be graduating.

“I think continuing to focus on the pay structure as we go forward is going to be a big one. No massive changes. You know, we’ve got the Land Stewards Fellows Program … This Work Program Supervisors Fellows Program is designed to provide fellowship opportunities to recent grads, to either graduate and start or come back, and actually perform the function of a supervisor. The way we’ve structured it is to do it with these kind of entry-level crews, so Land Stewards is an example of that. The design of that crew is to provide entry-level opportunities to the land crews, because getting on farm and garden and forestry as a first year student is hard, and this is an opportunity to provide students with this avenue to get on other crews.”

Though there aren’t any major changes happening to students across the board anytime soon, this current change has the opportunity to help a lot of students attending Warren Wilson. 

Palmer said it best when considering the options WPO had and the ways in which these changes will affect students: “I think this is a good place to start.”