In this excerpt adapted from his recent book, How The University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation (NYU Press, 2008), Marc Bousquet explores the relationship of mass higher education in the United States to a global shift toward precarious employment.*

In the U.S., the folk culture of higher education is deeply committed to the notion that higher education remains closely associated with higher wages. The truth is more complicated: more and more people have attempted to gain the higher education wage benefit in the past four decades, and real wages for many of those with advanced degrees have declined, rather than risen. The benefit for advanced degrees is increasingly associated with the business, technical, and vocational curriculum, and with graduate and professional degrees, rather than simply “going to college.” Furthermore, the growing gap between the wages of those with higher education and those without has more to do with extreme downward pressure on the wages of those at the bottom. Today, 70% of American high school graduates enroll in some form of higher education the autumn after receiving the degree—and their motivation is often directly vocational, an explicit effort to escape the extreme low wages and extreme precariousness of those in the bottom half. A very large fraction of them fail in this attempt: U.S. community college students’ three-year completion rate of two-year degrees is about 25%, and institutions with single digit success rates (6%, 8%) are fairly common.

Despite startlingly poor measures of student success, as every aspect of life becomes more precarious, more and more individuals and families pour their entire resources into higher education, often assuming debt that pushes them into bankruptcy, chasing the security offered by fewer and fewer positions.

Rather than resolving precarity, however, U.S. higher education directly benefits from precarious work arrangements as an employer in its own right. In fact, higher education is the leading innovator of late-capitalist, post-Fordist contingent employment, continuously pushing the envelope of un- or under- compensated work. A complex web of law, policy, and custom has created an absolutely marvelous circumstance for many higher education employers: they have vast workforces of persons that they don’t have to treat as workers, either because they don’t think of themselves as employees, or because U.S. law and policy deny them internationally acknowledged workplace rights. This is best understood in connection with the perma-temping of the faculty: as of 2005, no more than 30% of U.S. faculty were in the tenure stream, and the trend line points sharply down. Less well understood is the relationship of the U.S. system of graduate education to perma-temping—the wholesale abuse of the apprentice system, the near-universal substitution of graduate student labor for faculty labor on a permanent, structural basis.

As a result, in some disciplines the majority of grad students are already working in the only academic job they’ll ever have.

Even less well understood is the extent to which U.S. higher education is actively facilitating the similar and parallel substitution of undergraduate student labor for full-time workers with benefits throughout the economy, on campus and off.

As this excerpt goes to press, a Florida newspaper consortium that has terminated a platoon of paid staff reporters now publishes the for-credit but unpaid reporting of journalism students who, like graduate teaching assistants, will soon enter the larger economy to find that their higher education has helped create a pyramid scheme in which there are few positions of the sort for which they have paid to be trained—because the work is now being done by other students, themselves paying their campus employers for the opportunity to donate their work.

At many campuses, the single largest sector of the workforce are undergraduates, With soaring tuition—due both to the withdrawal of public support and leadership investment in everything except faculty—undergraduates seek to avoid debt by working while in school. Today, 80% of all U.S. undergraduates work while enrolled, on average 30 hours per week, with real consequences for their education. Most of the evidence suggests a threshold of 10 hours per week may be academically neutral, but it’s not clear how even this lower threshold merges with the steadily mounting demands for donated, un- or under-compensated labor from the undergraduate in such forms as service learning, undergraduate involvement in faculty research, internships, civic engagement, even extra-curricular activities.

Across the country, student labor time on campus is expended in work that mirrors similar low-wage benefitless positions in the service economy at large: food service, day care, janitorial work, building security, interior painting and carpentry, parking enforcement, laundry service, administrative assistance, warehouse restocking, and so on. These activities are far more typical than the tutorial, library, community service and internship activities that provide the public image of student work. (The nature of the work in “internship” and “community service” positions is another story, but is itself commonly similar service-economy activity such as data entry, document reproduction, and so forth.)

Student employment offices function as temp agencies or outsourcing contractors for local businesses and campus units.  At a typical public campus, the student employment office has hundreds of positions advertised by off-campus employers generally entirely without benefits or unemployment insurance, with a wage in the vicinity of 6 or 7 dollars an hour (sometimes more and often less). The off-campus work includes farm labor, satellite installation, short order cooking, commission sales, forklift operation, personal care in nursing homes as well as clerking in banks, malls, and insurance offices. Public universities will sometimes provide cheap workers for nearby elite private universities (which often place limits on the number of hours that their own undergraduates can work). The federal government employs cheap student labor in general office work and, for instance, as receptionists for the Social Security administration, in positions that formerly provided full-time employment for a citizen with reasonable wages and benefits. Student workers often replace full-time unionized staff.

The chapter from which this excerpt is drawn explores one exploitative undergraduate work program in an “enterprise partnership” between university, government and private employers—a program contributing to persistence to degree rates of as low as 12%.

At any one time, about 3,000 Louisville-area students are working a midnight shift as a result of signing employment contracts with something called the “Metropolitan College.”

The name is misleading, since it’s not a college at all. A partnership between UPS, the city of Louisville, and local campuses, Metropolitan College is in fact little more than a labor contractor. Supported by public funds, this “college” offers no degrees and does no educating. Its sole function is to entice students to sign contracts that commit them to provide cheap labor in exchange for education benefits at the partner institutions.

The arrangement has provided UPS with over 10,000 ultra-low-cost student workers since 1997, the same year that the Teamsters launched a crippling strike against the carrier.  The Louisville arrangement is the vanguard of UPS’s efforts to convert its part-time payroll, as far as possible, to a “financial aid” package for student workers in partnership with campuses near its sorting and loading facilities.

UPS refuses to provide standard statistics that would permit evaluation of the impact that this arrangement is actually having on the students it employs. None of its partner institutions appears to have responsibly studied the program for its students in terms of such major measures as persistence to degree, dropout rate and so on.

Is it ethical for universities and their partners to employ undergraduates on terms that severely disadvantage them from completing their degrees? In a moment when education administration has vastly increased its power over campus policy by comparison to students and faculty, do education leaders bear particular ethical responsibility for exploitative arrangements? Who is to be held accountable—and by what means? In what ways do students and similarly-exploited faculty and staff frame the possibility of a moral, ethical, and political counterpower?



“I know that I haven’t updated in about two and a half weeks, but I have an excuse. UPS is just a tiring job. You see, before, I had an extra 31 hours to play games, draw things, compose music…do homework. But now, 31+ hours of my life is devoted to UPS.

“I hate working there. But I need the money for college, so I don’t have the option of quitting. My job at UPS is a loader. I check the zip codes on the box, I scan them into the database, and then I load them into the truck, making a brick wall out of boxes.”
-“Kody,” high-school blogger in a UPS “school-to-work” program  

Employee of the Month

Seventy percent of the workers in the main UPS hub in Louisville are women. The average age is 34, and many are parents. Some of the women work in data entry, but most of the work involves package handling. For every teen-age worker, there’s another part-timer well into her forties.

The reality of the undergraduate workforce is very different from the representation of teen partiers on a perpetual spring break, as popularized by television (“Girls Gone Wild”), UPS propaganda (“they’re staying up until dawn anyway”), and Time Magazine: “Meet the ‘twixters,’ [twenty-somethings] who live off their parents, bounce from job to job and hop from mate to mate. They’re not lazy–they just won’t grow up.” (Grossman)

There are more than fifteen million students currently enrolled in higher ed with an average age of around 26. Tens of millions of persons have recently left higher education, nearly as many without degrees as with them.  Like graduate employees, undergraduates now work longer hours in school, spend more years in school, and can take several years to find stable employment after obtaining their degrees. Undergraduates and recent school leavers, whether degree holders or not, now commonly live with their parents well beyond the age of legal adulthood, often into their late 20s. Like graduate employees, undergraduates increasingly find that their period of “study” is in fact a period of employment as cheap labor. The production of cheap workers is facilitated by an ever-expanding notion of “youth.”  A University of Chicago survey conducted in 2003 found that the majority of Americans now think that adulthood begins around 26, an age not coincidentally identical with the average age of the undergraduate student population.

The popular conception of  student life as “delayed adulthood” is reflected in such notions as “30 is the new 20” and “40 is the new 30” (Irvine).  The fatuousness of these representations is confounded by looking at the other end of one’s employment life. Few people are finding that in terms of employability after downsizing that “50 is the new 40.” Persons who lose their jobs in their 50s often find themselves unemployable. What are the economic consequences for a person whose productive career can begin in their middle 30s or later, and end at 50 or sooner?  This pattern presents real obstacles for both women and men wishing to raise a family.  Yet mass media representations of extended schooling and the associated period of insecure employment are often cheery, suggesting that it’s a stroke of good fortune, an extended youth free of such unwelcome responsibilities as home ownership, child-rearing, and visits to health-care providers. In this idealistic media fantasy, more time in higher education means more time to party–construing an extended youth as a prolonged stretch of otherwise empty time unmarked by the accountabilities of adulthood.

But concretely the apparently empty time of involuntarily extended youth associated with higher education is really quite full. It’s full of feelings–the feelings of desperation, betrayal, and anxiety, the sense that Cary Nelson has captured for graduate employees under the heading of Will Teach for Food. Writers like Anya Kamenetz and Tamara Draut have captured the similar feelings of upper-middle class college graduates in books like Generation Debt and Strapped. Most of the persons Draut and Kamenetz describe will have added graduate school to successful bachelor’s degrees at first or second tier institutions. But little attention has been paid to the role of higher education in organizing the vast majority of the lives it touches–those who don’t graduate, or who graduate with community college, vocational, or technical degrees.

“Employee of the Month” is typical of the more successful students employed by UPS.  As she tells it on her weblog, this “mom/stylist,” aged 30, the mother of children aged 3 and 5, is a fan of Christian apocalyptic fiction, and a part-time student who hopes to become a teacher.  She has an “A” average. Her weblog represents her husband as a substance abuser who provides no contribution to the household finances. During the months covered in her weblog, he moves in and out of the house.  Like most students who find a job with UPS, she was already working hard before signing on with Big Brown. While parenting and starting school, she was working three jobs, including office work and hair styling. In the first few weeks, she enjoys the work:“I am digging this job!  I get to work out for 4-5 hours a night,” plus collect education benefits. Anticipating the 50-cent raise, she writes, “The pay sucks at first but within 90 days I should be ok.”  She plans to continue working as a stylist, but feels that she can quit her other two job part-time jobs, “with doing hair 3 days a week I will be making just as much as I have been making [with three jobs] and only working about 35-37 hours a week total. Woo Hoo!”

Rather than a partying teen, this far more typical working undergraduate is a devout 30-year-old who is thrilled simply to be able to work a mere full-time equivalent at two different jobs, in addition to schoolwork and solo parenting of two small children.

After the Christmas rush, and still in her first two months of employment, the upbeat blogger notes: “I am getting muscles in my arms and shoulders, my legs are getting a little toned.  I do need to lose about 25 lbs so the more muscle thing is a good start.… I am getting better at my job now that I am a little stronger and can lift the boxes up to the top shelf.”

Within six months, i.e., by March 2006, she had made “employee of the month” at her facility.

In the same month, she had her first work-related injury: a strained ligament from working with heavy packages. On a physician’s orders, she was placed on “light duty,” dealing with packages weighing 1-7 pounds (seven pounds is approximately the weight of a gallon of milk).

She had also grown discouraged about her prospects of continuing her education, and was considering dropping out.

Her family life is increasingly stressed by the UPS job. In order to collect less than thirty bucks a night, she has to leave her children to sleep at her mother’s house five nights a week.

Now that the holiday rush is past, she finds that, on her UPS salary and even with a second job, she is unable to afford such everyday staples as Easter baskets for her children, which her sister provided.

“A guy at work told me about a job at a private school, I applied and had an interview.  I hope I get the job.  I need to pay bills and the UPS job isn’t enough,” she concludes:

My kids did have a good easter, thank you to my sister. We went down to her house and she bought my kids candy, toys, and each kid a movie!! I thought that was above the call of duty. I can’t tell you how much I appreciate my family for coming to my aid in my time of need this past year. I know I could get another job and put my kids in daycare all day again and be able to support them better but I wouldn’t be able to go to school. It’s hard right now but I am already a year into school and I will be a teacher in a few years. I can’t stop now. Even with this drama going on in my life I have still kept a 3.6 grade point average. I want to finish it. My son still wants me to be a teacher so I have to show him that with work and perseverance you can accomplish anything dispite your circumstances. Facts don’t count when it comes to reaching a goal.  (“The Dance That Is My Life”)

In other words: for UPS to receive one super-cheap worker, that worker’s parents have to donate free child care and other family members have to donate cash, time, and goods. Like the vast majority of her co-workers in a UPS earn & learn arrangement, this A student and employee of the month is so sapped by the experience, physically injured, undercompensated, and domestically disarranged, that she’s on the verge of quitting school.

Despite her qualifications, energy, and commitment, the only thing keeping this UPS worker going is the desire to shore up achievement ideology for her children (“I have to show him that with work and perseverance you can accomplish anything dispite your circumstances”), to create a Disney narrative out of their lives when she drops them off to sleep at their grandparents five nights a week, a Disney narrative that will prove that “facts don’t count when it comes to reaching a goal.”

Supergirl: “my back hurts so fricken bad”

This 5′ 2”, 110-pound 23-year-old undergraduate woman writing under the moniker of “supergirl” has a charming sardonic flair: “America needs no more cheese, ham, huge-ass boxes of summer sausage, holiday popcorn tins, or kringles… I think I’ve moved enough of these that every man, woman and child should already have one by default. No wonder obesity is an epidemic.”

As with most, her daily UPS shift is a second job. After a year, she’s ready to quit. She’s had one work-related arm surgery: “I really don’t want to have another, or worse, risk permanently damaging the nerves in both arms,” she writes, “And I sincerely don’t think I’m being paid enough to stay there 2 years and blow out both arms unfixably… I know pain and can tolerate it, but I can’t even fucking sleep because every position somehow puts pressure on a nerve in my arm that’s already got problems and is being pushed to the limits.” When I asked another Louisville student employee to comment on “supergirl’s” representation of the injury rate, he called the physical toll exacted by the workplace a “key point,” adding, “The physical harm this work does will long outlast the span of the job.”

She complains of the culture of UPS–of speed-up, the pressure to deny injuries and work through them, and the pressure to continue employment through the milestones that dictate education benefits such as loan and tuition remission.

Under the rubric “don’t make UPS yours,” she warns other prospective student employees away:

“my back hurts… so fricken bad. It doesn’t benefit me to say i hurt because i’ve noticed that if you hurt of any kind the sort super just asks you to quit (in not so many eloquently and legal to say to an employee words)… i lift tons of shit that’s got 20-30 pounds on me… but as I stand; a girl of 5’2 and a buck ten… I can’t do that kinda shit everyday… I guess I can be supergirl fast or supergirl strong or a normal mix of either… but I can’t be both every fucking day. who can, anyway?

What disturbs her most is the pressure (from family, co-workers, supervisors) to work through her injuries to benefit-earning milestones. She understands the pressures driving everyone else to push her to continue, “but shit why can’t I just say I’d like to not be at a job like that?” In any event, she writes, “everyone should know I’ll probably just stay there anyhow.. cause I’m too damn busy to find anything else anyway.”

10,000 students and 300 degrees

There’s little mystery regarding UPS’s motivation for the “earn and learn” programs–not benevolence, but the cheapness and docility of the student workforce. In addition to the ultra-low wage, students’ dependency on UPS includes loan guarantees and tuition remissions, which are lost or reduced if the student resigns “prematurely” from the program. As a result of its campaign to hire undergraduates, UPS’s retention of part-time package handlers has improved markedly, despite speedup and continued stagnation of the wage between 1997 and 2007. Average time of employment for part-timers grew by almost 50 percent, and retention improved by twenty percent, with some of the most dramatic improvements in the Louisville main hub. This tuition benefit is tax-deductible and taxpayer-subsidized.  It’s a good deal for UPS, which shares the cost of the tuition benefit with partner schools and communities and saves millions in payroll tax (by providing “tuition benefits” instead of higher wages) while holding down the part-time wage overall.  All “earn and learn” students must apply for federal and state financial aid. Many of its workers attend community colleges, where tuition is often just a few hundred dollars. Many students are subjected to a bait-and switch: attracted to the program by the promise of tuition benefits at the University of Louisville (currently over $6,000 a year), program participants are instead steered toward enrollment in the community colleges–a decision that doesn’t reflect their academic needs, but as Metropolitan College director Poling admits, exclusively the desire of the state and UPS to contain costs. Studying on a part-time basis, as most in the program do, a student seeking a B.A. can therefore remain in a community college for three or four years before earning the credits enabling transfer to a four-year school. One student pointed out that trying to schedule around the UPS jobs was a “lot harder than it sounds,” and for many it was “downright impossible to do this and get the degree in any reasonable period of years.” Students that attend inexpensive schools, or qualify for high levels of tuition relief (as is often the case in the economically disadvantaged groups targeted by UPS recruiters), substantially reduce UPS’s costs. Undergraduate students also represent lower group health insurance costs.

Another way in which students reduce UPS’s cost is by quitting before they become eligible for benefits, by taking an incomplete, or failing a class. No benefits are paid for failed or incomplete classes. Students who drop out of school but continue to work for UPS also significantly lower UPS’s cost.

To put UPS’s costs in perspective: in a decade, it has spent no more than $80 million on tuition and student loan redemption in over 50 hubs. By contrast, its 2006 deal with the state of Kentucky for a 5,000-job expansion of just one hub, involved $50 million in state support over ten years. Company officials are fairly frank about UPS’s dependency on cheap student labor, supported by massive taxpayer giveaways. “It would have been nearly impossible to find an additional 5,000 workers [for the expansion] without the resources of Metropolitan College,” a public-relations VP told the Louisville business press (Karman and Adams). It has expanded “earn and learn” programs to 50 other metropolitan centers, to Canada, and to for-profit education vendors such as DeVry.

It’s a lot less clear whether this is a good deal for students. “We’ve solved employee retention,” Poling admits, “but we’ve got to work more on academic retention.”

It’s hard to estimate the size of Poling’s understatement, since UPS and Metropolitan College refuse to supply standard academic persistence data on its huge population of undergraduate workers. But it’s a whopper.

Of the 10,000 students Poling’s program claims to have “assisted” with their higher education since 1997, he was in 2006 able to produce evidence of just 300 degrees earned, 111  associate’s and 181 bachelor’s degrees. Since both UPS and Metropolitan College refuse to provide public accountability for the academic persistence of undergraduate workers, it’s hard to estimate what these numbers mean by comparison to more responsible and conventional education and financial aid circumstances. However, the most favorable construction of the evidence available for Metropolitan College shows an average entry of slightly more than 1000 student workers annually. Based on 2.5 years of data after 6 years of program operation, according to Poling, the program between 2003 and 2006 showed approximate annual degree production of about 40 associates’ and 75 bachelor’s degrees.

This approximates to a 12% rate of persistence to any kind of degree.

UPS’s student employees in the Metropolitan College program are more likely to be retained as UPS employees than they are to be retained as college students. In May 2006, of the 3,000 or so Metropolitan College “students” working at UPS, only 1,263 were actually taking classes that semester. This means that during the spring term, almost 60% of the student-workers in UPS’s employ were not in school: “another 1700 or so,”  in Poling’s words, “took the semester off” (Howington).

Of the minority actually taking classes, at least a quarter failed to complete the semester.  UPS pays a bonus for completing semesters “unsuccessfully” (with withdrawals or failing grades) as well as “successfully.” Counting the bonuses paid in recent years for “unsuccessful” semesters together with the successful ones, Poling suggested that during terms in which between 1200 and 1700 student workers were enrolled, between 900 and 1100 students would complete at least one class, or a ratio of perhaps ¾. These numbers appear to hang roughly together. If in any given year, the majority of UPS night-shift workers are “taking the semester off,” and 25% or more of those actually enrolled fail to complete even one class in the semester, this seems consistent with an eventual overall persistence to degree of 12%.

In plain fact, it would seem that UPS counts on its student workers failing or dropping out. Because of the high rate of failed classes, withdrawals and dropping out, UPS ends up paying only a modest fraction of the education benefits it offers. If each of the 48,000 students who has passed through its “Earn and Learn Program” had collected the full UPS share of tuition benefits over a five year period, it would have cost the company over 720 million dollars. In fact, it has so far had to spend just ten percent of that total–$72 million–on tuition remission, or an average of only $1,500 per student (the equivalent of just one semester’s maximum tuition benefit per participant). Similarly, the loan remission benefit (theoretically as much as $8,000 after four years’ employment) would total almost $384 million. But as of 2005 UPS has had so far to pay off just $21 million, an average of just $438 per student worker, well under 10% of its liability if all of its student workers actually persisted to completion of a 4-year degree.

Higher education has been transformed into an industry, like others in the service economy, that is “structurally and substantially” reliant on youth labor (Tannock).  Campuses of all kinds are critically dependent on a vast undergraduate workforce, who as is in the fast-food industry are desirable not just because they are poorly paid, but because they are easily controlled.  Increasingly, higher education’s interest as a low-wage employer of easily-controlled workers is at odds with its mission of serving the public good, advancing knowledge, and producing engaged citizens prepared for democracy. Instead higher education increasingly collaborates with corporate actors similarly dependent on low-wage, easily-controlled workers—actors whose interest in democracy, knowledge, and the public good is incidental at best.

Marc Bousquet is a member of the governing Council of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP), and was the founding editor of Workplace: A Journal for Academic Labor, now co-edited by critical education scholars at the University of British Columbia. He is also Associate Professor in the English Department at Santa Clara University in California. He resides in Canada part of each year .

* The full chapter from which this excerpt is drawn, “Students are Already Workers” is available as a free download, as is the “Introduction”

Grossman, Lev. “They Just Won’t Grow Up.” Time,  January 24, 2005, 42-54.

Howington, Patrick. “Students May Fill Many New Jobs.” Louisville Courier-Journal,  May 18, 2006. Available at: (accessed July 10, 2006).

Irvine, Martha. “More Americans Find Themselves in ‘Delayed Adulthood.’” Louisville Courier-Journal, 27 October 2003, A3.

Karman, John, and Brent Adams. “Close Ties among UPS, Government and Development Officials Helped Package Come Together Quickly. Business First of Louisville.  May 19, 2006. Available at (accessed July 10, 2006).

Tannock, Stuart. Youth at Work: The Unionized Fast-food and Grocery Workplace. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.