March 29, 2016
By Joe Maniscalco
New York, NY – At 19, NYU sophomore Hannah Fullerton is exactly the kind of young person critics of a $15 an hour minimum wage like to accuse of not really needing more money. But here’s why they are wrong.
Last Thursday, NYU administrators made the happy announcement that after ongoing clashes with SLAM — Student Labor Action Movement — the minimum wage for all student employees at the prestigious and pricey institute of higher learning is finally going to $15 an hour.
The boost is being phased in over three years, so Fullerton will never actually see a $15 an hour figure on her paycheck. Instead, the Massachusetts native and SLAM activist will have to continue doing what she’s already doing — amassing ever more student loan debt in a desperate effort to continue living and studying in the costliest city on the planet.
“That was an argument that [NYC administrators] used a lot,” Fullerton told LaborPress. “In fact, one administrator once actually said directly to me, ‘Please don’t call your wage a living wage because you’re not making a living — you’re a student.’ That made it really clear to us that they saw the money students who were working their way through college and who had Work-Study grants, as trivial spending money, or side cash. When, specifically at a university as expensive as NYU, the reality couldn’t be more contrary.”
NYU itself estimates cost of living expenses for students like Fullerton studying at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study to be $24,000 per academic year. Health insurance costs add another $3,353 to student bills. Then there’s NYU’s tuition, of course, which SLAM says has ballooned to over $60,000, and is the third highest in the nation.
The $3,000 that she’s been allotted through the Work-Study program is absolutely vital to Fullerton’s academic career, but because her wages are so low, she’s found it nearly impossible to work enough hours to earn the entire Work-Study award.
“We know that those who are working the most hours are also those shackled with the most debt, and who often come from low income backgrounds,” Fullerton said. “So, the idea that a $15 wage is a trivial number just simply isn’t true. These are the students who need that money to make sure they can stay in housing or that they can pay their rent. Or that when the time comes to graduate, they can pay off their public loans. I know students now who are working who have private loans they have to pay while they’re still in school, or else they'll accrue an insane amount of interest.”
Still in her teens, Fullerton expects to eventually emerge from college some $70,000 in crushing student loan debt.
“Even this past year, the tuition was raised about $5,000 and my scholarship was not raised at all. My Work-Study was not raised at all. The only thing that increased was my loans.”
In moving to increase salaries for student employees, NYU now becomes the first private school in the country to raise its campus minimum wage to $15 an hour. Columbia University has now followed suit. Macalester College, the University of Pittsburg, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison are next.
The New York State Legislature, meanwhile, is debating this week whether or not to support Governor Andrew Cuomo’s push for a statewide $15 an hour minimum wage for all workers.
“I sort of had a rude awakening going into my sophomore year that I was going to be accruing more and more debt which I didn’t expect,” Fullerton said. “I rely on loans to stay in student housing. It’s to the point where getting by means piling on more debt.”
And with studies combing art and activism, Fullerton doesn’t expect to command the kinds of lucrative salaries upon graduation that might have otherwise been available if she were a business or finance major. All she really has is the dream that brought her to New York City in the first place.
“I came here to NYU to realize my dream, to live and work in New York City,” she said. “And because of the amount of debt I’ve accrued, I might actually have to leave because I simply can’t afford it.”
Around the country, more than 70 percent of all college students are trying to work their way through to graduation.