Students' labor poses problems for colleges


Child labor law infractions have been headline news in recent months, as well as the argument of numerous educators that teen-age work is often stressful and routinized. Yet one of the most significant and unheralded changes in recent years has been the mushrooming of student employment in academe.

At my own university, students are employed in virtually every major area -- they answer phones in departmental offices, serve as secretaries, staff the various units in the library (with the notable exception of the reference area), drive the shuttle to and from the city's Metro system, take visitors on tours, and sell books and other articles in the campus store.

To be sure, I was a teen-age "workwolf" in my college days in the 1950s, as were my best friends, but the chores were limited to service as dorm advisers and cleaning up trays in the cafeteria. Full-time employees were the most conspicuous individuals one would see and deal with during the course of a semester.

"Work study" -- the federally supported system whereby full-time students can work at their institutions -- is fashionable in contemporary academe because it benefits both parties. Even though work-study support is limited, universities can still employ students, paying minimum wages without benefits. Student employees accrue no vacation time, sick leave or rights to a permanent position.

Students benefit by arranging their work according to class schedules and personal preferences. The likelihood of being fired for poor performance and excessive tardiness and absences, they soon perceive, is slim. The worst that can happen is no pay for no-shows. Students' fringe benefits include the opportunity to chat with their friends, who might call or visit them during work time, as well as to study on the job.

The underside of reliance on student employees is an increase in sloppy performance, and in areas too critical to be left to such risks.

While full-time faculty and staff members are subjected to numerous reviews and evaluations, their professional work can be impaired by students who fail to answer phones, type a letter that should have been finished yesterday, or don't show up for work in the library periodical section, causing a day's delay in making available the most recent issue of a periodical important to faculty research and teaching fields.

What is worse, perhaps, is the long-term effect of sloppy work habits by students. Having gotten away with disinterested performance -- what faculty member is going to take on the heart-rending scenario of a student, lazy or even incompetent, working his or her way through college? -- the student can carry this blase approach to his work after college, thereby diluting the substantive knowledge gained during the course of four academic years.

Then there is danger of breach of faculty privacy. A student secretary or receptionist may have access to sensitive files, and a student messenger from a dean's office may correctly surmise that a series of envelopes marked "confidential" to a faculty member signals some personnel problem.

No doubt, one could argue that the current conditions in academe are better than those in the 1960s, when the student movement put students on rank-and-tenure committees and educational policy bodies that changed the curriculum to one of "relevance" and the minimization of grades. Yet, that same movement was accepted only reluctantly by faculty members and administrators who recognized that this, too, would pass in time and normalcy would return.

Student employees, on the other hand, are gift horses that are unlikely to be looked at in the mouth and thus phased out.

It costs university administrators so little in terms of their budgets, and no respectable faculty member is going to go to the dean or president about student employees who don't measure up.

For students, it is widely recognized, are immature citizens whose margin of error is inherently wide. In the classroom, the students are adolescents whose young minds are to be treated with sensitivity and tolerance. In the academic work world, that yardstick translated into a C grade may reflect performance that impacts more dramatically and adversely on a university's operation than it does in the classroom.

So the moral is simple: Higher education should scrutinize its student employment situation, much as it employs its professional expertise in other university areas. To do otherwise is to risk running a professional institution on substandard terms it condemns in the outside world.

Thomas V. DiBacco is a historian at the American University in Washington. His most recent work is as co-author of a high school text, "History of the United States."

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