The Productive Student

Who makes the university? The answer isn't as obvious as it seems

Marc Bousquet

Associate Professor of English


In my last book, How The University Works, I looked at some of the “innovative” employment practices of higher education. Many such innovations aren’t anything to be proud of, such as outsourcing service workers and perma-temping the faculty. Among the most troubling patterns is the steady conversion of full-time adult positions to low-wage “financial aid.” At many U.S. institutions, the student workforce includes carpenters, drivers, guards, childcare workers, janitors, gardeners, art restorers, tech support, tutors, medics, graders, cooks, and dishwashers. Employers large and small cluster near college campuses in order to take advantage of the vast low-wage transient workforce represented by students. 

The question of student debt has penetrated public awareness, but in many ways student labor remains a larger problem. Nationally, about one in five undergraduates don’t work for wages. The remaining eighty percent do, however, for an average of thirty hours a week. Most credible studies agree that a modest amount of paid work while in school is associated with higher grades, at least for those who come to campus with higher ability. However, over-working—which is usually described as working more than fifteen or at most twenty hours a week—negatively affects learning, persistence to degree, and time to degree. Students who over-work miss out on extracurricular life and are over-represented in the ranks of drop-outs, the hyper-indebted, and the disaffected. 

At any one time more than 14 million undergraduates are in the U.S. workforce—a figure larger than the official count of the unemployed. It’s hard to imagine a federal jobs program that would not involve moving a significant portion of this work out of student lives and back into the realm of adult employment.

And that figure is just for paid work—it excludes the tens of millions of unpaid and donated hours that students devote every year, to nonprofits and business employers alike, in service learning, internship programs, and civic engagement. 

At any one time more than 14 million undergraduates are in the U.S. workforce—a figure larger than the official count of the unemployed.

This astonishing workplace productivity by students, both paid and donated, is just the tip of the iceberg. What makes a great university like Emory? Surely the labor of the faculty matters, and the staff as well, from librarians to groundskeepers. All of us who work here contribute something. Sometimes what we contribute, however, isn’t something we did on Emory’s payroll, as in the case of a scholar, painter, or novelist who achieved fame before working here. 

Isn’t the same also true for students? Don’t they contribute to Emory both on and off the payroll?

At universities with reputations for athletic excellence, for example, the extracurricular accomplishments and sacrifices of student athletes are readily understood as contributions to the campus brand. Most analysts agree that the prestige capital is more significant than any direct revenue generated by athletics. In fact nearly all athletics programs operate at a loss but are viewed by administrators as a cheap-at-the-price investment in the school’s intangibles, such as its reputation and the development potential of its endowment. 

Athletics are just one, classical form of the ways students donate to the campus brand. School newspapers are another. So are singing groups, dance troupes, and theatrical productions. Indeed, all of the myriad student extracurricular activities make a contribution, from sororities and religious organizations to student government. Any participation builds the brand. It is true that some forms of participation can be destructive of community or corrosive to its prestige. Nonetheless, the reality is that even organizations protesting administrative decisions can add to the campus’s appeal (“free speech and free spirits survive here”). 

At schools like Emory, students donate to campus prestige capital with their postgraduate achievements. They likewise contribute value with accomplishments before they even arrive, in the form of their test scores, high-school rank, and arts prizes and athletic victories. 

Blogging and Facebook time adds value. At certain kinds of schools, value to the brand is added by the time spent by students in gyms and tanning salons, photographing each other at parties, and publishing and circulating those photos. Party schools’ reputational capital is generally earned: They don’t get their reputations—which, make no mistake, have value in their own way—without the dedicated efforts of tens of thousands of students over time. (Even at non-partying schools, the importance of the healthy, leisured-yet-studious physical image of students is so important that, where such imagery is not generated spontaneously by student life, it has to be manufactured for marketing purposes.)

Looking at the intense value-adding productivity of student time, even the time not spent obviously working, raises some interesting questions about how we manage the massive resources of modern American higher education. Are we fairly attending to the needs of undergraduate students when we allocate resources via models that over-emphasize certain kinds of easily measured revenue productivity, such as grants in certain disciplines or professional-school tuition? 

Understanding students as productive, both as campus employees and as enmeshed in a campus gift economy, also raises questions about the dominant “quality” models of students primarily as consumers or revenue sources. 

The justification for the student-as-consumer approach to quality management is, broadly speaking, a variant on the old saw that the customer is king, and there are certainly many ways this philosophy has benefited students and increased student power. But at too many institutions, it has too often increased the power of students according to their spending power, giving full-pay students admissions benefits and better food, better accommodations, and so forth. In some ways, the quality management of student as consumer has returned many institutions of higher education to the nineteenth century, in which the scholarship students shined the shoes of the full-paying leisure class. 

By understanding that students are producers as well as consumers, we are asking for a better accounting of the gifts of time and talent made by so many. If we more completely honored students’ full productivity, perhaps we’d do a better job of honoring other campus producers as well, and more effectively raise questions about the rationale for outsourcing and perma-temping. 

Taking student productivity seriously isn’t just a moral standpoint; it’s a practical economic question. With students in the workforce working too much to succeed at their studies and outnumbering the official count of the unemployed, it’s clear that a program to reduce student over-work could create millions of jobs, not incidentally improving many institutions’ relationship with their communities. 

Taking student productivity seriously might also mean looking at classwork as labor time. We might ask tough questions about the billions of hours annually burned on writing papers designed to be read only by one person. How could that writing time be made more productive? What if we asked that more student writing be made to circulate in the world? Recognizing the full scope of students’ contributions to the campus and world that we have is one key to collaborating with them to build the campus and world we’d like to have. 

Further Reading

Bousquet, Marc. How the University Works: Higher Education and the Low-Wage Nation. New York UP, 2008. Read Chapter 4, “Students Are Already Workers,” online at

Kirp, David. Shakespeare, Einstein, and the Bottom Line: The Marketing of Higher Education. Harvard UP, 2004.

Pike, G. R., G.D. Kuh, & R. Massa-McKinley. First-year Students’ Employment, Engagement, and Academic Achievement: Untangling the relationship between work and grades. NASPA Journal, 45, (2008). 560–582.

Saltman, Kenneth, and David Gabbard. Education as Enforcement: The Militarization and Corporatization of Schools. Routledge 2010. 

Slaughter, Sheila, and Gary Rhoades. Academic Capitalism and the New Economy: Markets, States, and Higher Education. Johns Hopkins UP, 2004.

Umbach, Paul D., Ryan D. Padgett, and Ernest T. Pascarella. The Impact of Working on Undergraduate Students’ Interactions with Faculty. In L. W. Perna (Ed.), Understanding the Meaning of ‘Work’ for Today’s Undergraduates. Stylus, 2010. Read the chapter online at

Williams, Jeffrey J. Student Debt and the Spirit of Indenture. Dissent 56.1 (Fall 2008). 73–78,