The New York State Legislature will soon address a proposal from the Honorable Sheldon Silver to increase the minimum wage from $7.25 to $8.50 an hour. The proposal undoubtedly arises from the noble intention of helping New York's lowest-paid citizens and will probably be enacted into law. It will surprise many, then, to learn that these good intentions could actually harm rather than help the prospects of many citizens to achieve the kind of education that they need to be successful and that New York needs to maintain economic vitality.
In New York State today, the ability of many young people to earn a college degree depends upon a federally funded program known as "Work Study." Offering students the opportunity to defray the cost of higher education by working for their colleges, Work Study has been crucial to the ability of New York's colleges and universities to enroll 1.2 million students each year, and to allow them to complete their degrees. Private colleges and universities enroll 40 percent of the students, more than either the State University of New York (SUNY) or the City University of New York (CUNY) systems do. And private colleges and universities have an excellent record of helping students remain in school, awarding (63) percent of all bachelor's degrees in the state, including most of the degrees in engineering, the sciences and mathematics.
Too often, the public embraces the casual assumption that private education is the exclusive domain of the wealthy. Nothing could be further from the truth. New York's private colleges and universities have conferred more degrees on first-generation students and those from challenged economic and ethnic backgrounds than either SUNY or CUNY. At my own institution, Alfred University, approximately 92 percent of the students receive need-based financial assistance and Work Study represents a significant portion of that assistance. Work Study enables students to defray part of the cost of their education by working part-time. This not only limits students' need to accumulate debts to pay for their education, in some cases it also introduces many of them to a different world of work - in a research laboratory, for example - than they might find in either the small villages or the inner cities in which they were born.
The federal government ostensibly pays 75 percent of the student's hourly rate, with the college or university matching it with roughly 25 percent. Students qualify for the Work-Study program because of need, computed on the basis of their family income.
At Alfred University, we receive about $200,000 for the federal Work-Study program, meaning our required "match" would be about $67,000, for a total of $267,000 available. In reality, Alfred University "overmatches" the federal dollars, committing $433,000 to support work opportunities for students, and bringing the total allocation available for Work-Study jobs to $700,000. To put it in a different way, instead of covering 75 percent of an eligible student's wages, at Alfred University, federal Work-Study funding supports less than 30 percent of the wages.
We do this, in part, because other jobs for students are not plentiful in Allegany County where the campus is located. (The county is one of the poorest in the state, with chronically high unemployment.) But we also do it because the money our students earn at their Work-Study jobs helps to pay their bills - for books, for travel to and from school, for the day-to-day necessities.
Before the Legislature and Governor enact the proposal to increase the minimum wage they should think carefully about its impact. If they do so, I am confident that they will understand why the increase should not apply to students working part-time in the Work Study program. Doing otherwise will limit both the opportunities of young New York students and the future of the New York economy.
Charles M. Edmondson has been president of Alfred University, the only Ph.D.-granting institution in the Southern Tier, since 2000.