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Some Kentucky college student workers’ wages struggle to keep up with tuition increases

University of Kentucky Human Resources

As tuition and other post-secondary education costs continue to climb, pay for student workers at many Kentucky public state universities is going up too. But, some students say it’s still not enough to help cover living expenses.

Information shared by officials at six of Kentucky’s public state universities – including the University of Kentucky, the University of Louisville, Western Kentucky University, Murray State University, Northern Kentucky University and Morehead State University – shows the cost of college has been slowly rising over the last five years.

All six schools have tracked increases in total cost of education (which includes tuition, housing, meal plans and other expenses) over that time period, some by as much as $3,000.

Zacharie Lamb

Sandy Baum is a higher education researcher with the Urban Institute – a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit research group focused on equity, economic growth and improving communities across the nation. She said students struggling to cover the cost of college is a widely recognized issue.

“It’s obvious that for many students it’s hard to come up with enough money to cover all of their [college] expenses,” Baum said. “If you look at the full student budget and you add up a reasonable amount of earnings with grant aid and federal student loans, that leaves a gap for many students.”

Baum said navigating the rising cost of college for many students can be a complex problem without a clear answer.

“For most students, living expenses are higher than tuition … even if you had free tuition, you'd still have students who would be struggling to meet their living expenses,” she said.

Bek Schmidt – a sophomore music business major at Murray State University – has to work three different jobs on campus to support themselves. Schmidt said their weekly expenses include paying for gas, food, off-campus housing, and taking care of their cat, but their bi-weekly paycheck doesn’t cover it.

“Most of the time – because I quite frankly just don't make that much – it really only pays for gas and you know maybe a meal,” Schmidt said. “It doesn't even make my rent a month.”

Students at many schools have limits on the number of hours they can work each week. For many – including Murray State and UK students – that limit is 20 hours. That limit effectively sets a cap on the maximum yearly pay for student workers. U of L students can work as much as 30 hours a week, while WKU and NKU students are capped at 25 hours.

At Murray State, the average student worker hitting their weekly hour limit for a year would total a little more than $5,200 – around a quarter of the cost for a year of education. Schmidt said this cap – combined with low wages – puts a strain on their finances.

“That really hurts a lot of people because $8 an hour but only 20 hours per week is not the best equation,” they said. “If I was to be paid more, maybe I wouldn't have to have three jobs.”

Olivia Gregory is studying foreign languages and international economics at the University of Kentucky. The sophomore works as a call leader for the Lexington school’s office of philanthropy. She said her $10 hourly wage covers her living expenses and then some.

“I use my paycheck to pay for my groceries, and extra spending money, and to pay my sorority dues,” Gregory said. “I get paid every other week, and it is more than enough for me. I'm able to save about half of it and then use the rest of it to pay for my groceries and put towards other things.”

All but one of the six public state universities that shared data with WKMS about their estimated total cost of attendance also shared statistics about the growth of average student wages for on-campus jobs over the past five years.

Note: The University of Kentucky did not report student worker pay data.
Zacharie Lamb
Note: The University of Kentucky did not report student worker pay data.

Student workers at the University of Louisville, Western Kentucky University, Northern Kentucky University and Morehead State University all saw average hourly wages increase by more than $1 per hour in that time, but the average Murray State student worker in 2022 made just under 10 cents more than in 2018.

An official with the University of Kentucky – the school with possibly the largest student population – said the institution did not track student wages over time.

Murray State’s executive director of marketing and communications Shawn Touney said wages at the school are decided by the departments that hire each student worker. He said the amount of financial aid offered at universities can have an impact on how much students are paid, as well as the responsibilities of the position.

“It is difficult to compare institutions on an hourly rate without considering the overall scholarship offerings of each institution,” Touney said. “Each individual department may determine the appropriate hourly rates for students based on the job responsibilities.”

Baum said the difference between student wages at separate colleges can be influenced by a myriad of reasons. The Urban Institute researcher said universities with higher tuition rates can often afford to pay their students more, and some colleges may not have to compete as much with the local labor market if there are fewer opportunities for students to work outside of campus.

“There's a lot of concern not just about student wages on campus, but about the wages of a lot of employees on campus who have service jobs,” Baum said. “Some of them are unionized, and some of them aren't. And, many of them are supporting families, and many of them have shockingly low wages. So, wages are a big problem in our society at large.”

Baum said there are some possible solutions – aside from student loans – to help more students meet the financial demands of college, like increasing the amount of grant money available to students in need or raising the state’s minimum wage above the federal minimum wage.

“What you really want to do is target the students who need the money the most. Instead of telling them they should work 30 hours a week, you really want to give them more grant aid,” Baum said. “It's good to work in college, but if you work too much it can interfere with your studies.”